wordguild

Archive for the ‘personal statement’ Category

The New Common Application Essay Prompts for 2017-2018 and other Changes to the Common Application

In common application, Common Application 2017-2018, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, Uncategorized on May 8, 2017 at 9:37 am


Who should read this post:  Anybody applying to a college in the Common Application portal next year.  Here is a searchable list of members:  Common App 2017-2018.    I note with interest that the new members this year include some good international options, some regional big names and some universities that should be better known–like the alma mater of James Joyce, University College, Dublin. It seems the Common App is rebounding from their disastrous rollout of Common App 2.0, back in 2015-2016 as they add members and extend their reach.  But they do have competition–more on that in a later post.

Quick Plug for My Services Before We Get to the Prompts:

If you need guidance on the application process, target schools, or other application questions, contact me to make an appointment, either locally in the Bay Area or via Skype.  One meeting of two hours will allow us to cover the fundamentals and to look at the latest data, and to outline a target school list, with a preview of admissions requirements and essays.  If you need assistance only with admissions essays, a single meeting of two hours introduces the major consortium essays (e.g. Common Application and University of California essays) and gives us time to look at multiple target school prompts, as well as to discuss ideas and to outline an initial draft.  A sample edit with general review comments and specific line editing on a portion of the essay is included as a follow-up. Some students are ready to continue writing initial drafts independently after an initial meeting, with editing feedback via e-mail. others prefer to continue meeting as they develop major essays, supported by editing on each draft–you choose the level of service that works for you.  Either way, having a set of essays in hand before school begins again will be a major stress reliever.  Please contact me for further details and availability.  

Yes, there is some news, but nothing too radical–the Common App is tinkering with a few of the questions used last year, and . . . fireworks and applause . . . reintroducing the open essay question that disappeared some years back.  Apparently old application prompts don’t fade away, they just go on hiatus.

However, this is not true of Common Application accounts.  You will want to wait until the Common App reboots for this year before you actually set up an account and start filling in your personal information, which usually occurs in the last day or so of July or beginning of August.   At that time all accounts currently existing on the portal are deleted.  So feel free to peruse the site, but don’t bother setting up an account just yet.  What you can do, though, is start writing your Common Application essay, or better yet, start thinking about it–and getting some ideas written down.

And I have a very old-fashioned recommendation for how to go about that:  Carry a small notebook, and in that keep a copy of the prompts.  Read the prompts every once in a while and just start scribbling ideas down as they come.  If you do this for a month or two, sitting down at least a few times a week, you will have a large deposit of ideas to mine. Too many students use a process that involves sitting down, picking a prompt and writing about the first thing that seems like  a good idea.  I have found that it is much better to start doing a little bit, every day, if possible, then sitting down after a month or two of idea-generation to start your essay.

Most of you will be writing at least three essays anyhow, and the more raw material and ideas you start with, the easier the process will be.  I like the small version of the Picadilly notebook, btw–and no, they do not advertise on my site (nobody does–I do not accept ads as I want to avoid conflicts of interest), nor do I own stock in the company.  I just like the notebooks, and they are cheaper than the better-known Moleskin books.  I  suppose you could also type material into your phone, but I always find my thinking is more open-ended when I am using pen and paper, and that is what you want as you start–open-ended and creative thinking.

So start the process early, even if you will write the essays later.

With that as a prelude, here are the Common Application essay prompts for 2017-2018.

2017-2018 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. [No change]

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? [Revised]

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

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. [No change]

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

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? [New]

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. [New]***

 

***But also old . . . this open prompt was a feature of Common App 1.0.  I am happy to see it back, but its very openendedness can be a challenge.  More on that in a future post.

The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014

In Changes for the Common Application, common application, Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompts, personal statement, The Common Application Essay on March 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

The Common App folks are set to release Version 4.0 for the 2013-2014 application year.  They have promised to make things more user friendly, and they have changed the essay prompts.  Most important, from my point of view, is the increase in essay length–you have up to 650 words; you need to write at least 250. This is up from the 500 word limit of recent years, which is a great thing.

They have also dropped the prompts that I grouped together as the “intellectual development ” prompts–such as the prompt that asked you to talk about an intellectual experience or influence.  On the other hand, there are still ways to use the new prompts to discuss books and intellectual experiences. If you are bookish or  a fanatic when it comes to a particular author or genre of fiction or film, or have found an intellectual home somewhere in the world of books, you already have a large cache of material to draw on and there are ways to use these as topics for the new prompts.

Writing about an enthusiasm is particularly helpful in shaping your personal essay so that it looks out the window more than it looks into the mirror.  An essay about an intellectual or other passion is a good way to  write about something outside of yourself as a way to write about yourself.   Coming up with content may be much easier than for some other topics,  and you get the bonus of not  seeming self-absorbed (a real problem in a first-person essay about yourself).

I will offer more strategy on that soon and begin my discussion of potential topics for some of the new Common App prompts in upcoming posts.

I’ll close for now by giving you the new prompts:

The Common Application Essay for 2013-2014 Instructions.

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. 

The College Application In 2012-2013: Services and Options

In college admissions, college application, personal statement on January 26, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Dear Readers:  

In 2012-13, the CollegeAppJungle will be moving into a new phase. In Free Access,  I will continue to offer an open-access menu of articles on topics of general interest to college applicants at the graduate and undergraduate levels on The College App Jungle.

In addition to this free, Level 1 content on The College App Jungle, I will be offering a personalized and complete suite of additional information and services to paid subscribers and to clients who retain WordGuild College Counseling or WordGuild Writing Services.

I offer intellectual development programs and college application portfolio development as well as support for essay and writing development focused on the college application process.  You can get full access to our written material using the Subscription Level and you can get  coaching, editing and personal development through Client Level Services at an hourly rate or by purchasing a development and support package which will give you a full set of college application essays and a portfolio of extracurricular activities.  See below for further details on these levels.

The Subscription Level will offer complete access to all articles and analysis, to include  instructions for writing all of the prompts of the Common Application for 2012-2013, as well as the Universal Application, various University of California and private school prompts, including but not limited to Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth and most other “elite” universities.  For examples of the kinds of content which will be available in Level 2, see my entries on the Harvard PromptHow To Write About Books II and Final Words On Writing About Books, as well as my entries listed below for the Common Application.

Full access to these and all other posts is included in subscriptions payed now and includes weekly posts on these topics through January of 2013.  The price for a subscription through January 2013 is 15$.  Send an e-mail to wordguild@gmail.com and include the text “subscription, please” and I will send you an invoice.  After payment through a secure site, you will be given full access for this year’s college app info and analysis.

Client Level Services range from editing on specific essays to  a full college application service offering a suite of services to include:

  • Free access to all areas of the CollegeAppJungle and a complete essay and personal application portfolio development program with:
  • An assessment and planning phase in which I meet with and assist students in creating an Intellectual Development/Experience program and an Activity Program–note that this must be done at the latest early in the summer before the Senior Year. This planning phase may be initiated through a personal meeting in the Local Program for those living in or willing to come to my immediate geographical area,  or we can “meet” more economically via e-mail, phone and, as necessary, via Skype for those who live outside my area or who wish to choose the more economical Distance Program. I prepare the student for the intellectual experience/book questions which appear on most supplemental applications and I also assist in developing an activity tied to a student’s current interests which enhances specific areas of the application.  Both programs also provide content for application essays.  This opening meeting and planning should be completed by mid-July of 2012.
  • Guidance and Calendaring on the ID/E and Activity Programs through the summer and into the fall of the Senior year.
  • Preliminary Essay Drafting for specific university prompts from August into December of the Senior year.
  • Detailed Editing and follow up to complete up to 4 application essays.  Additional essays may be added on a per-piece rate.  This phase runs from August through January of the Senior year.

You can start preparing as early as the Sophomore year and I will work with you on an hourly rate or you can purchase a package of all services listed above.  Contact me for more detailed information and prices for the Client Level program at:

wordguild@gmail.com


How To Write About Books III

In common application, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Princeton Supplemental Essay, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books, Yale Supplemental Essay on November 1, 2011 at 7:39 pm

This post builds on the last two posts and offers a  list of themes by which you can classify and discuss books.  This includes a detailed discussion of books and particularly of some  quality trilogies and  series that have been popular in recent years.  The post includes suggestions for mixing it up by developing a thematic comparison of  fiction and nonfiction.  Links to outside reading and examples are included.

I will assume that you have read my last two posts.  If not, start here:  How to Write About Books Part I.  In this post I will summarize the process I outlined in the previous two posts and offer a bit more commentary.  While some university supplements do not ask specifically about books, this discussion, and the two posts preceding this, may be useful in giving you a focus for a discussion of your intellectual development, or you might find useful information here if you wish to write an essay in which you discuss some aspect of life outside of books and relate it to what you have found in books. When you have one or more essays ready for feedback, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com as Word attachments for a free editing sample and job quote–in return for seeing what I can do for you risk-free, I ask for only serious inquiries. Thank you.

If you are like most readers of Non Required Books, you have picked up either a variety of books with no clear plan involved in your reading or  you have read with a very narrow focus.  The result is probably a pile of unrelated tomes or something like a stack of George R. R. Martin novels.  One heap will seem aimless, the other obsessive, neither of which are impressions you really want to make in your college application essays.  The challenge for the obsessive is to add something to the mix; for the aimless, to find common ground in the material.

Here’s the system I outlined in the last two posts, simplified:

1. Find the similarities in the books.

This post continues by explaining and elaborating on this system for writing about books.  This is an approach, not a formula, and yields individualized essays, not essays based on an outline.  The post goes on to discuss different thematic approaches, with high-quality and popular examples from both fiction and nonfiction, including links.

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

wordguild@gmail.com 

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


How To Write About Books II

In college essay, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Essay, Harvard Application Supplement, personal statement, Stanford Essay, Writing About Books on October 26, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Most university application essays or supplements present at least the possibility of writing about books.  Several applications ask directly that you write about a book or a series of books.  If that sounds like you, read on, after you have a look at my last post which opens up the conversation which I will continue below. After you have one or more drafts ready, send them to me at wordguild@gmail.com; I will return a sample edit to you and a bid for the job. You get a risk-free sample of what I can do for you; in return I ask for only serious inquiries. Thanks and enjoy.

For most application prompts which you can or should use books to address, it is either required or advisable to write about more than one book, and it is also wise to refer to or use at least some books which aren’t part of the national high school or junior college curriculum.  You do not want to establish yourself as a person who simply does The Required Reading.  Our universities are not simple technical schools; they represent what is called the liberal tradition of education, which is rooted in a humanistic vision of the world.  If that isn’t making sense, they are looking for the closest thing possible to a Renaissance woman–or man–to admit to their schools.  They want you to have an active curiosity and to be reading about matters that aren’t necessarily part of a class.  They want you to desire learning for its own sake.

Perhaps you don’t.  Perhaps you feel a tad guilty, but the real deal from your point of view  is to get into college to make money.  Fair enough, but in writing this essay, you might just find that buried spark of curiosity and, if not, you can fake intellectual curiosity.  If you fake it long enough, it will become real.

But on to the books themselves, and to writing about them.  One immediate mistake is to assume that this essay can only be about a particular kind of book, such as the novel or the biography.  Nay, my friends!  In fact, I encourage you to consider how different books which you have read because you wanted to might be compared.  You may, in fact, be able to use a book (or two) which you had to read for school but which you also like or love, and relate it to other books you have read outside of school.

I presume that you have read my last post and hopefully clicked the link there to the New York Review of Books and did some reading.  Nobody expects you to write at that level of depth, which of course is not possible given the length requirements of the apps, but the idea and basic structural elements of the NYRB give you a good model.

The way to go about this is to establish some point of comparison between the books beyond the fact that you read them.  This most often occurs to writers as they survey the material and ask themselves how to tie the disparate material together.

Or you could approach a selection of books with a preexisting assumption or overarching argument and ascertain which of them could be used in relation to your argument.

Here is an example of such an assumption:  We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.   I know, I know:  all the ages of man are ages of unintended consequences.  Yet in making this statement,  you would be suggesting that this is the hallmark of our age above all others, and that this is clear in everything from financial markets to looming environmental catastrophe to wars and interventions which breed only more wars and interventions.  As an arguable point which you will use your readings to demonstrate, such a broad thematic statement is just fine.  Not only that, this rather classic theme of literature and history is widely applicable.  Ask yourself what you have read that in some way reflects the truth contained by the thesis that We Live in the Age of Unintended Consequences.  I would argue that most books deal with this in some way.

Most books on the common Required Reading lists qualify.   The Great Gatsby, check. It’s not like Jay is floating around waiting to be shot.  Grapes of Wrath?  With an interpretive slant, check (picture an army of radicalized Tom Joads ghosting through the land, intent on overthrowing the Powers That Be who, in the end, created him themselves, or created his righteous anger, which comes to the same thing).  Romeo and Juliet, Of Mice and Men, Beowulf, check, check and check.  As for your history textbooks, check on pretty much every event.  Not that you want to write about your high school history textbooks, though if your teacher happened to use a wonderful stand-alone, such as Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time (speaking of Tom Joad) or Egan’s other great book on 20th Century America,  The Big Burn, or Tom Holland’s Rubicon, a wonderful survey of Rome at the end of the Republic, well, you should definitely avail yourself of their contents for your essay.

Once you establish a broad theme, the next step is  how to conceptualize it, how to create a heirarchy and definitions.  What do I mean?  If we are looking at unintended consequences as our basic claim, we can define our own boundaries.  Perhaps we use the term Modernity to focus what we mean by the Age of Unintended Consequences; in other words, we may be claiming that The Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  Now we’ll have to explain further, and as we do,  conceptualize and define in such a way that we establish the structural principles for the essay.  If this seems like a lot of work, I would point out  that this might become the introduction to your essay.

In the spirit of showing rather than telling,   an introduction to an essay about  books based on the premise outlined above  might look something like this:

“If I were to draw a single conclusion from all of the reading I have done in my free time, it is this:  that the Modern Age is an Age of Unintended Consequences.  I read widely, in many different genres.  I have found that in all genres, from popular novels such as the the science fiction trilogy The Hunger Games, to contemporary histories on our recent wars, such as Dexter Filkins’ account of the War on Terror in The Forever War to  the clutch of books recounting the roots and consequences of our financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’ Big Short or his more recent Boomerangour historians, journalists and novelists are preoccupied with our own failure to foresee the consequences of our actions.”

You would then go on to discuss these works in whatever structure suits you–you might work through them one at a time, with each book composing a subtopic of your essay, or you might discuss similar elements or themes in each, with the themes being subtopics.  You could create a very convincing essay using only  three “nonrequired” works like those I use in my example, but any good selection of books which you tie together clearly and convincingly will do.

Notice how you can bend a broad idea like the one I discuss above, reshaping and redefining it so that it fits a set of books; you can expand or contract the era you want to discuss; you can pick parts of works to highlight while downplaying or ignoring other parts; you can compare science fiction to contemporary history to biography.  You just need to establish the right categories and conceptual framework in your introduction.

Start by listing some “big ideas’ which might link a group of books, allowing what seems disparate to be comparable; then list books you have read and liked according to these ideas–look for common ground and make lists of books which have common ideas, problems, themes, outcomes, what have you.  At this point, you are on your way.

In the near future, I will be writing posts on both how to conclude an essay and on the Five Paragraph Essay which is so favored on high school campuses and so hated on college campuses.  In the meantime, Good Luck and Godspeed, and don’t forget, I offer editing services–though you’ll have to hurry if you want to use them. My calendar is filling rapidly as the deadlines approach, so you need to contact me soon if you wish to use my services.  See my introductory post and the About section of this blog for my contact information.

Nota Bene:
My blog is searchable and will show up on sites like turnitin.com as well as on the similar programs used by many universities to spot plagiarists.  Your essays should reflect original thought; while I believe that, if you tweak the idea I presented here to suit yourself,  you are doing original thinking,  you do need to rework the  idea for yourself and write the essay using books you know well.  Better yet, come up with a different idea about our times and learn from my presentation of how to approach the conceptual challenge without using my idea at all.  Remember:  Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but copying is plagiarism.

Welcome to the Jungle

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement, university application information on August 30, 2011 at 10:29 pm

College Advising and Essay Development, from Singapore to San Francisco.

The College App Jungle is my blog devoted to the  world of college applications.  The pursuit of college admissions can seem increasingly Darwinian, but my hope is that this blog will provide you with the context and means to have a fulfilling and successful transition into college.  In that spirit, you can scroll through my archives to find over 100 posts covering all aspects of the college search–a clickable table of contents for a selection of popular topics can be found below.

I work with clients from as close as the high school down the road from me and as far away as international schools in Singapore and Europe.  Last year, my clients were admitted to all top Ivies, Stanford, the University of California, U Texas, Johns Hopkins, NYU and many more, with all of my college advising clients receiving multiple admissions.    Read on for detailed information on college applications, data, and how to write your essays.

This site is an old-school informational service, short on gauzy pictures and long on detailed and dense analysis and information.  In addition to maintaining this blog as a public service, I offer a full slate of  college advising and application services, ranging from self-assessment and college selection to the best essay development and editing service in the field.

Upcoming Events and News

College Application Essay and College Advising

Contact me for personal essay coaching and college advising appointments in June and July.  I work one-one-one, in person and via Skype, to help you begin your college essays, and if you need college advising and target school help, the sooner you get started, the better.  The Common Application Prompts have already been released, and early applications are in full swing by early November.   You don’t want to be working out where to apply and what essays are required as you also juggle  new projects, classwork and school essays as the new school year begins.  Enjoy your senior year more by starting the application process early. To inquire about my college application and editing services,  you can reach me directly via e-mail here:  Contact Me.

(One Warning--while the 2017-2018 Common App prompts were released this spring, so that you can choose and write your single Common App essay as of now, please do not set up your Common App account yet–all existing accounts will be deleted in late July, 2017,  when the portal goes offline before reopening for the  2017-2018 application year.  This has happened in previous years in the last half of July, with the portal reopening  between July 31 and August 1st, as a rule.  In addition, individual colleges will be making any official changes to their essays and other requirements at that time, so check with me on this site and with university websites for additional changes for this year–and don’t be alarmed if your college of choice does not have its essay prompts ready when the Common App does go live.  Some of the most elite schools have been late to the game in recent years.  Harvard, for example, posted their essay prompts in mid-August last year.)

You can also visit my business portal at: UniversityGatesAdvising to quickly review some basic information on the college application scene (like the sometimes odd terminology used in admissions) and to see client testimonials.

College App Jungle Contents and Links

The Secret of College Admissions:  How College Applications Are Evaluated

Common Application and Common Application Essays

Common Application Update 

College Application Trends, Statistics and Advice

Ivy League Admissions Data for 2016-2017–See the most recent data available on admissions

Advice on the College Application Rat Race

Researching And Selecting Colleges:  Go West, Young Person–an old post, but still so true, for those looking to get great bang for their tuition buck.

College Application Success:  The Seven Rules–timeless advice on how the system works

The Stanford Supplemental Essay Prompts (These have  been unchanged since 2011)

More on the Stanford Supplement Prompts

University of Chicago

I have a soft spot for The University of Chicago Essay Prompts, because they are often so brazenly weird and even when they seem a little too-cute pretentious, they are interesting.  Because  U Chi allows applicants to choose and write an essay addressing any of their old prompts, I keep all of my old posts on them up–for example, have a look at:   Prompts for 2015-2016. Or just click below for old prompts that you may still write about.

The Mantis Shrimp Prompt:  How to Write About It

The Chicago History Prompt:  There’s More To It Than Meets The Eye

Those Chuckleheads:  The Chicago Joke Prompt–How to Write About It

Writing About Books- Part 2 (2011)

How to Persuade: The Rhetorical Situation

The above is not a comprehensive list of posts but gives you a representative sample.  You may browse further using the Archive link.  

In the twenty years that I have been helping students navigate the application and essay process, the essay itself has become much more important. The reasons are clear. Over the last decade, we have seen increasing numbers of qualified high school students face decreasing numbers of seats available in our universities.

The facts are stark–educators across the country have faced funding cuts that predate the Great Recession, and the ivied walls of academia are no longer impregnable to assault.  Pair that with the awareness that an education at a good college is increasingly a bottom line item for a decent job and quality of life, and you have a supply and demand problem:  If you present a 4.0 GPA to most competitive universities, you are essentially in the middle of the pack.  The result:  your application essays can be vital to your chance of being admitted.  But I have to add something here: it is as bad as it looks if you apply to the same 12-15 colleges that everybody else applies to, but once you widen your list a bit, it looks much better.  See below for links related to statistics and to finding more options than the Ivies, Stanford, Cal and whatever two or three regional favorites dominate the application lists in your area.

The information available on this blog is for the free use of college applicants and essay writers.  Use it to help you get started before you send your work to me.  Topics range from general discussions about the craft of writing to specific discussion of college essay topics and the changing world of college applications. I also review trends in admissions and changes occurring in the world of academia.

The contents of this blog are intended for the use of college applicants and their parents to assist them in the college application process and in developing quality application essays. Please refrain from using this blog for your own commercial purposes. If you wish to duplicate any of this information, please contact me to explain and request the right to do so.  Full access to sample content is available via a subscription.  Contact wordguild@gmail.com to subscribe.

College Application Essay No-No’s

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 pm

This post is a Golden Oldy, but based on some essays I have looked at recently, I am putting it back up front.

Long ago, in a decade far away–specifically in 1986–the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd interviewed an Ivy League admissions officer named Harry Bauld. Bauld had worked at both Brown and Columbia universities before turning to teaching and writing. In this interview, and in the book which he wrote about the college essay, Bauld’s advice is still apt and shows just how little has changed since the 1980’s.

Bauld observes that the essay is most important for those in “the gray area.” He defines a student in this category as “not one whose academic numbers make you too easy to dismiss or too overwhelming to deny.” I would like to intervene here to point out that, given what the bell-shaped curve demonstrates,  he is talking to the majority of well-prepared high school seniors, most of whom are not immediately disqualified by low GPA and test scores but who are not running valedictory laps, either.

So if you are not one of the top half dozen students in a good high school, Bauld is talking to you. And what he says is: exercise care. In fact, Bauld argues that the college admissions essay can be the “ultimate noose with which a 17-year-old can hang himself.”

Let me qualify Mr. Bauld’s dire metaphor by pointing out that the college essay is not likely to be a deathlike–or even a near death–experience. It will, however, be the first piece of writing that actually affects the lives of most students. So attention must be paid, and we should begin with what should not be done.

Harry has some essay types which he thinks will be duds at best or laughable failures at worst. First among Bauld’s targets is the kind of autobiographical essay which is basically a list of achievements meant to show how unique and appealing the writer is. I will add my view that the immediate problem with an autobiographical essay of this kind has to do with the competition. All high school students share certain experiences, and if they are candidates for college, they also share particular traits and have, for the most part, pursued similar activities designed to plump out the resume which they need these days to be competitive applicants. In other words, you are unique, just like all the other kids writing the same essay, but the result of the typical application process is that you engage in very similar activities and have very similar grades to your competitors. The process itself pushes most students toward the center, and, as Bauld notes, if you are part of the drab middle, you won’t stand out to the poor essay reader who is flipping through essay after essay after essay . . . .

This  is the challenge: how to stand out without offending.

Bauld goes on to list five more types of essays which should be avoided at all costs.

The first he calls the “My Favorite Things” essay. In this type of essay, the writer presents a series of things she is passionate about–or in favor of–and often juxtaposes this with a list of things she does not favor. The structure says it all: it’s much like the top or bottom ten lists offered by certain comedians and media personalities. This has become a pretty tired trope and tends to provoke vague generalizations and inarguable claims (e. g, I am opposed to nuclear proliferation, pollution is bad for the planet, etc).

Bauld next identifies an essay he calls “The trip essay.” You go on a trip, tell the reader about it, and manufacture some important “life lesson” to attach to your sojourn in order to show how broadly experienced and thoughtful you are. Unfortunately, “manufacture” and “Life Lesson” say it all. Any time you impose a moral on an autobiographical tale, you are in dangerous territory. At the least, you are probably taking yourself too seriously, and you are also more than likely imposing some interpretation on your story after the fact and might even be making some things up to make it convincing. Either tactic is inauthentic, at best.

The third type is “the three D essay.” Bauld describes this as the kind of essay in which the applicant argues for his own Determination, Drive and Discipline. Bauld finds this kind of essay dull. I agree, not because determination, drive and discipline are bad things, nor because your reader can say that you don’t possess these qualities (unless your GPA and other information give you the lie, in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway). The problem is that this is a kind of bland, formulaic writing which offers no complexity and which requires no insight into the self. A comic-book hero from the 1950’s might write an essay like this.   Hi, my name is Clark Kent, aka Superman, and I am a clean-cut and disciplined fellow who always does the right thing . . .

The fourth type of essay Bauld calls “The Miss America Essay.” He refers here to the moment in the Miss America contest when the would-be’s step up to a mic and offer their insights into world affairs and the important challenges facing the world. While still looking great in a swim suit. Need I say more?

Finally, Bauld offers what he calls the “Jock Essay.” In this, a high school athlete offers an account of lessons learned from sports, or how sports taught him to have the discipline, et al, necessary for success. This sounds suspiciously like the third kind of essay, in my opinion, but Bauld, as a longtime reader of college app essays, may feel that this needs to be a separate category because so many people create this kind of essay.

Bauld goes on at great length and offers good examples in his book, which is still one of the best on offer. Have a look at your local bookseller, or if you must, on Amazon. Buy it if you wish, but my suggestion is to start writing immediately. I will add to this that I don’t think that you necessarily have to avoid writing about a trip which was an authentically powerful experience for you, nor should you eschew the topic of athletics if you are an athlete, and if you are passionate about some world problem or political topic, by all means, write about it.

Just be sure to write from an authentic place and don’t create some sort of stereotypical narrative with a predictable outcome. Life isn’t terribly predictable, even if your life so far seems to be.

In an upcoming post, I will address Bauld’s categories at more length and show you how you might approach one or more of these essay types which Bauld so heartily condemns. As he says himself, the most important thing is that you “come alive on the page.”

Writing The Essay On An Influence: The Demons Are In The Details

In college admission, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on August 26, 2011 at 8:54 pm

My last post introduced the essay on a personal influence, which was the focus of Prompt Three and Prompt Four of the Common Application in recent years, and I suggested some exercises to get you started. This post assumes that you have some material ready to work with. If you don’t, have a look at my last post. If you do, carry on!

In the post that follows, I will examine an essay about an influential father and his flower stand, which is one of a dozen essays I have seen already this year that use a parent as an influential figure. The fact that many people use this subject does not make this a bad topic choice–in fact, this shows what a great topic this is, if it is handled well.

The two most common truisms of writing are these: Write what you know and Show, don’t tell. This post will focus on the second of these as I examine the use of detail in narrative essays. Let’s start with the example of a father as an influence, which was the topic of a Prompt Three essay which I recently edited. The author agreed to let me use his essay, though I limit the amount of detail I provide to curtail copycat efforts.

The author of this essay told the reader his father had a floral business at which he worked very long hours, that a national chain had opened up a similar business several blocks away, and that his father had responded by working even harder and so had succeeded. The honesty, hard work and skill of the father had trumped the brand recognition and franchised power of the other store. As a result of watching this unfold, the author of the essay, who was struggling to balance football and a heavy school load (demanding sports and academic schedules are de rigueur these days), had learned to be more organized and to get things done in a timely manner. Problem solved

But a big problem for this essay remains:

This post continues with a  discussion of this specific essay and an explanation of how to improve this kind of essay in general, including what kind of detail to include and where to include it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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