Or at least some of them are, and I will post the major prompts available as of July 6th, 2015, below this short introduction to college applications for 2015-2016.
For two of the major systems used by West Coast students and many others, the news is good–the Common App has tinkered with its prompts in a way that improves them, and the U.C. system will not change its prompts at all, so you can start these essays any time. And you should, in my opinion, start very soon if you mean to apply to the 10-15 colleges that are on the average applicant’s list these days.
A word of caution, however: Just because the prompts are up does not mean that the application portals/websites are live. The Common App, for example, posted its new prompts in a blog post, but if you went on the Common App site early to register and fill in all those irritating boxes of information that are required to set up an account, your diligent efforts will have been for nought–the Common App site will go offline on July 26 and all information on it at that time will be erased. Including yours, if you already set up an account for the 2015-2016 application cycle. When the site comes back online–supposedly on August 1st, and we trust the Common App people have learned their lesson and will be reliable this year–you can open your account.
Your takeaway: Expect many essay prompts to be release before application portals are up and running, and go ahead and start your essays, but hold off on setting up accounts for now. And when in doubt, check with a reliable source, like Yours Truly.
Confused by this? Let me explain: updating websites costs money and diverts resources. Despite better economic news and so better funding in most states, the public schools are not flush with money–in California, Prop 30 stabilized funding but did not restore it to the levels prior to the economic crisis that started in 2007-2008–and the U.C. system is in relatively good shape, compared to other systems around the country.
This quote from University of California President Janet Napolitano, from this past spring, sums up the situation for most large, public schools:
“Public universities require public support. On a per-student basis, the state is paying far less than it did in 1991 – from about $18,000 in 1991 to $8,000 today, in 2014-15 dollars. The university is receiving $460 million less in funding from the state than it did in 2007, even as it educates thousands more California students.”
Most schools and application portals leave their old stuff up until a date (un)certain because it is cheaper and creates fewer headaches (for them) than creating an interim page between application cycles. As for the insanely well-endowed schools who could easily afford to create more transparent application pages, why should they spend money that their competitors are not spending? They just follow the herd, for the most part, and keep the change.
So expect the majority of schools to open their application portals August 1st, this year–while separately and unevenly rolling out parts of the application that you will need to complete, like the essays.
So go ahead and get started on any of the essays below–I will make this experience easier later this week by creating in-page links to speed the process, but for now scroll down to see your schools of interest.
Here is a list of most of the major prompts currently available; scroll down below the list to find the full prompts and requirements:
Common Application–Choose one of five prompts and write your single C.A. essay.
Georgetown University–Four essays, varying lengths. Clearly a commitment required to apply here, people.
University of California–Write two essays of up to 1,000 words. I suggest doubling one of them with the Common App.
University of Chicago–One required essay, one optional. You should write both. 500 words each. I have multiple posts on past U Chi prompts, and one option is to choose an old prompt to write about. Check out more on that by searching my site. Wild and wacky.
University of Michigan–250 word essay, then a 500 word essay for Freshmen and a 500-word essays for transfers.
University of North Carolina–a Common App essay and a second supplemental essay of 400-500 words
University of Pennsylvania–a Common App essay and a supplemental of similar length addressing your academic interests and the school you will apply for–majors are situated within specific schools in universities, like Engineering, Arts and Sciences, etc. Plan on doing some clicking and researching here.
University of Texas, Austin–Two essays required and a third optional essay encouraged (by me–when in doubt, write more, but do so with a clear strategy).
University of Virginia–Common Application essays plus two shorter essays and other responses.
University of Washington–Write an essay of 600 words, a shorter essay of 300 words and a couple of (optional) short essays.
Full Essay Prompts and Guidelines:
Common Application Essay Prompts, 2015-2016
From the Common App blog, updating for this year:
We are pleased to share the 2015-2016 Essay Prompts with you. New language appears in italics:
- 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.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- 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 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
University of California Essay Prompts
Your personal statement should be exactly that — personal. This is your opportunity to tell us about yourself — your hopes, ambitions, life experiences, inspirations. We encourage you to take your time on this assignment. Be open. Be reflective. Find your individual voice and express it honestly.
As you respond to the essay prompts, think about the admissions and scholarship officers who will read your statement and what you want them to understand about you. While your personal statement is only one of many factors we consider when making our admission decision, it helps provide context for the rest of your application.
All applicants must respond to two essay prompts — the general prompt and either the freshman or transfer prompt, depending on your status.
- Responses to your two prompts must be a maximum of 1,000 words total.
- Allocate the word count as you wish. If you choose to respond to one prompt at greater length, we suggest your shorter answer be no less than 250 words.
The U.C. essay prompts
Freshman applicant prompt
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Transfer applicant prompt
What is your intended major? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had in the field — such as volunteer work, internships and employment, participation in student organizations and activities — and what you have gained from your involvement.
Prompt for all applicants
Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?
Georgetown University Application Prompts, 2015-2016
Georgetown University Question #1
Required for all applicants
Indicate any special talents or skills that you possess.
Georgetown University Question #2
Required for all applicants
In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
Georgetown University Question #3
Required for all applicants
As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.
Approximately 1 page
Georgetown University Question #4
Required for all applicants (based on particular school)
APPLICANTS TO GEORGETOWN COLLEGE: Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please specifically address those interests.)
APPLICANTS TO THE SCHOOL OF NURSING & HEALTH STUDIES: Describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying health care. Please specifically address your intended major (Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, International Health, or Nursing).
APPLICANTS TO THE WALSH SCHOOL OF FOREIGN SERVICE: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.
APPLICANTS TO THE MCDONOUGH SCHOOL OF BUSINESS: The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives. Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.
Approximately 1 page
University of Chicago Essay Prompts. Et Al
2015-16 UChicago Supplement:
Question 1 (Required):
How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.
Question 2 (Optional):
Share with us a few of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, blogs, magazines, or newspapers. Feel free to touch on one, some, or all of the categories listed, or add a category of your own.
Extended Essay Questions:
((From U Chicago FAQ: Is there a word limit or suggested word limit to your essay responses?
We suggest that your essays stay around 500 words each. While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 500 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would. Please be kind to your poor admissions counselor, who reads 1,000+ applications per admissions season, and stick to our suggested limits.))
(Required; Choose one)
Essay Option 1.
Orange is the new black, fifty’s the new thirty, comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll, ____ is the new ____. What’s in, what’s out, and why is it being replaced?
—Inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015
Essay Option 2.
“I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.” –Maxine Hong Kingston. What paradoxes do you live with?
—Inspired by Danna Shen, Class of 2019
Essay Option 3.
Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, Class of 2016
Essay Option 4.
“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” –Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?
—Inspired by Kaitlyn Shen, Class of 2018.
Essay Option 5.
Rerhceseras say it’s siltl plisbsoe to raed txet wtih olny the frist and lsat ltteres in palce. This is beaucse the hamun mnid can fnid oderr in dorsdier. Give us your best example of finding order in disorder. (For your reader’s sake, please use full sentences with conventional spelling).
—Also inspired by Payton Weidenbacher, Class of 2015. Payton is extra-inspirational this year!
Essay Option 6.
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
Essay Option 7.
In the spirit of historically adventurous inquiry, to celebrate the University of Chicago’s 125th anniversary, please feel free to select from any of our past essay questions.
University of Michigan Essay Prompts
U-M supplemental essay questions for the 2015-2016 Common Application:
Essay #1 (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words.)
Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.) FRESHMEN APPLICANTS
Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
Essay #2 (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.) TRANSFER APPLICANTS
Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?
University of North Carolina Essay Prompts
2015 Application Essay Prompts
After much discussion among the admissions committee, we’ve now selected the essay prompts for the 2015 application. We hope they will inspire you to write an essay that will help us understand who you are, how you think, and what you might contribute to the University community. Keep in mind that your essays will be evaluated not only for admission, but also for possible selection for merit-based scholarships and Excel@Carolina.
You’ll submit two essays, the first of which is from the main part of the Common Application. These prompts are common to all schools who accept the Common Application and you can view both the prompts and instructions here.
The second essay will be specific to the UNC application. You’ll choose one prompt and respond in an essay of 400-500 words. Here are the questions:
- Why do you do what you do?
- You were just invited to speak at the White House. Write your speech.
- What one thing should all students know before their high school graduation?
- What concerns you about your world? What do you hope to do to make it better?
- UNC Professor Barbara Fredrickson – an expert in positive emotions – has defined love as “micro-moments of connection between people, even strangers.” Tell us about a time when you experienced a “micro-moment of connection.” What did you learn?
University of Pennsylvania Essay Prompts
Penn Writing Supplement on the Common Application for Fall 2016 entry:
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.
The essay should be between 400-650 words.
*For students applying to the coordinated dual-degree programs, please answer this question in regards to your single-degree school choice. Interest in dual-degree programs will be addressed through those program-specific essays.
Coordinated Dual Degree and Specialized Program Essay Questions for 2015
Huntsman: The Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business
- In light of your personal interests in language, business, andinternational affairs, please discuss a current global issue and explain how the Huntsman Program would allow you to explore it in greater depth. (500-700 words)
- Please indicate how many years and how extensively you have studied the language you selected for the Huntsman Program.
LSM: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Program in Life Sciences and Management
LSM seeks students who are enthusiastic about combining science with management. What excites you about this combination? What advantages and opportunities does the combination provide, and what does it address? Be as specific and original as possible in addressing these questions. (400-650 words)
M&T: The Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology
Please complete both prompts.
- How will the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology help you pursue your specific interests in both engineering and business? Please address in depth engineering fields, areas of business, and their potential integration that you plan on pursuing through this Penn program. (400-650 words)
- Please describe a time in which you displayed leadership. (250 words maximum)
NHCM: Nursing and Healthcare Management
Discuss your interest in nursing and health care management. How might Penn’s coordinated dual-degree program in nursing and business help you meet your goals? (400-650 words)
VIPER: The Roy and Diana Vagelos Integrated Program in Energy Research
Describe your interests in energy science and technology and your previous experiences (academic, research, and extracurricular activities) that have helped you to appreciate the scientific or engineering challenges related to energy and sustainability. If you have previous experience with research, consider describing your research project at a level appropriate for an educated non-expert, outlining the goals, hypotheses, approach, results, and conclusions. Describe how your experiences have shaped your research and interests, and how the VIPER program will help you achieve your goals. (400-650 words)
NETS: The Rajendra and Neera Singh Program in Networked and Social Systems Engineering
Describe your interests in modern networked information systems and technologies, such as the Internet, and their impact on society, whether in terms of economics, communication, or the creation of beneficial content for society. Feel free to draw on examples from your own experiences as a user, developer, or student of technology. (400-650 words)
Seven-Year Bio-Dental Program
- Please list pre-dental or pre-medical experience. This experience can include but is not limited to observation in a private practice, dental clinic, or hospital setting; dental assisting; dental laboratory work; dental or medical research, etc. Please include time allotted to each activity, dates of attendance, location, and description of your experience. If you do not have any pre-dental or pre-medical experience, please indicate what you have done that led you to your decision to enter dentistry.
- List any activities which demonstrate your ability to work with your hands.
- What activities have you performed that demonstrate your ability to work cooperatively with people?
- Please explain your reasons for selecting a career in dentistry. Please include what interests you the most in dentistry as well as what interests you the least.
- Do you have relatives who are dentists or are in dental school? If so, indicate the name of each relative, his/her relationship to you, the school attended, and the dates attended.
University of Texas Application Essay Prompts and Supplemental Writing (Including Plan II)
The Essay Prompts for Fall 2015 Applicants
All essays, scores and documents that are submitted to the University of Texas Undergraduate Admissions via mail or electronically submitted via BeALonghorn (which is the preferred method of submission) will be visible to all honors programs and colleges to which the applicant has applied.
Essay C (required of all UT Austin applicants):
- Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extra-curricular activities might help you achieve your goals.
Essay of Choice:
Application to Plan II Honors requires submission of Essay C and either Essay A, B or D. Plan II will review the same two essays the applicant submits to complete application to the University of Texas at Austin. There are brief additional writing requirements that are part of the honors application, but there is not another essay required. The applicant does not submit multiple versions of Essay C and Essay A, B or D. Plan II Honors and the University of Texas Office of Admissions review the same essays.
- Essay A: Describe a setting in which you have collaborated or interacted with people whose experiences and/or beliefs differ from yours. Address your initial feelings and how those feelings were or were not changed by this experience.
- Essay B: Describe a circumstance, obstacle or conflict in your life, and the skills and resources you used to resolve it. Did it change you? If so, how?
- Essay D: Submit this essay if you are applying to architecture, art history, design, studio art, or visual art studies/art education. Plan II will accept Essay D, along with Essay C, as one of the two required essays.
Personal interaction with objects, images and spaces can be so powerful as to change the way one thinks about particular issues or topics. For your intended area of study (architecture, art history, design, studio art, visual art studies/art education), describe an experience where instruction in that area or your personal interaction with an object, image or space effected this type of change in your thinking. What did you do to act upon your new thinking and what have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area?
Please be sure to read what Plan II says about essays. That information CAN make a difference to your Plan II evaluation.
Special Circumstances Essay Topic: Essay S: There may be personal information that you want considered as part of your admissions application. Write an essay describing that information. You might include exceptional hardships, challenges, or opportunities that have shaped or impacted your abilities or academic credentials, personal responsibilities, exceptional achievements or talents, educational goals, or ways in which you might contribute to an institution committed to creating a diverse learning environment.
*Special Note on Essay S: Essay S should NOT be used simply as another opportunity to submit a third writing sample, to emphasize interest in the program or to demonstrate motivation to be part of Plan II.
Letters of recommendation, as well as the optional “Essay S” are NOT required by Plan II and really should only be submitted if the circumstances warrant submission. We actually prefer that applicants do NOT write a third essay or submit letters of recommendation unless there is a compelling reason to do so. If the applicant has to ask if he or she has special circumstances, then the answer is no. The same is true with letters of recommendation.
In most, although not all, special circumstances that would indicated that the applicant should submit an “Essay S” or obtain a letter of recommendation would include some kind of challenging situation in the family, personal life, health, family financial or personal experiences—circumstances that are out of the ordinary high school student’s experience (which might include, but certainly are not limited to the loss of a family member, major family crises/upheaval and/or family financial issues; immigration issues; an applicant’s or an applicant’s family member’s health issue that affected the family; moving multiple times throughout the student’s lifetime, especially multiple times during high school; a parent deployed in the services, etc.).
Special circumstances that warrant an “Essay S” submission or a letter of recommendation could certainly also include special beneficial circumstances such as educational travel experiences, a special school experience (charter school, home school, performing arts school, health professions high school, etc.) research experiences, work or internship experiences that give the applicant a different perspective, qualification, maturity etc.
Requirements on the Honors Application:
The Plan II Honors writing requirements on the on-line honors application include the 5 sentences we consider your Personal Statement.
If an applicant is applying to more than one honors program, all the requirements for each honors program will be contained in the single honors application. The application will NOT submit multiple honors application, even if applying to multiple honors programs.
The Plan II Personal Statement
The applicant completes the following short answer prompt in the required on-line honors application. The on-line honors application is accessible once the applicant has completed and submitted the ApplyTexas application and it has uploaded into the system. The applicant will receive a confirmation email from the university when ApplyTexas has uploaded successfully.
- Please write five sentences describing yourself, your life, and your experiences that taken together form an accurate view of who you are. Be creative!
Do not list information provided in your résumé or in your essays. This is not a rehash.
These five sentences should be little nuggets of information that give us insight into who you are. It’s information that you couldn’t work/sneak into an essay or onto your résumé, but information you feel is really important in showing us just who you are, “where you come from” and how you are “Plan II-ey.” The sentences should not simply reiterate information from your résumé, but they may enhance information mentioned on your résumé. Smart applicants will make good use of this little “application gift,” and make each of the five sentences about something different.
Think of these sentences as showing us “FACETS” of who you are, including what you do, what you love, your favorite things, your deepest desires, your most grandiose dreams….. These are snapshots, not short stories, that give us a view of you and your unique perspective. What five important things would you want to make sure you were able to include if you were in an interview for Plan II. (Since we do not offer interviews as part of the admissions process, this is your big chance.)
- Please number the sentences 1 through 5.
- The personal statement has a maximum 1000 characters total. Spaces DO count as characters in the 1000 limit. But our honors application pages are very flexible when it comes to character limit. We don’t have a very strict character count system so if the applicant goes over the limit, our system will retain a good quantity of characters past the 1000 limit, to a certain point. If the applicant is worried about the limit, we advise the applicant to type as many characters as he/she needs and press the “save” button before submitting. If the applicant goes over the limit, our system will cut off the extra characters and the applicant will know it. On the other hand, if after pressing the “save” button all the characters appear, then he/she knows that all the characters will be transmitted.
- From the Plan II Honors admissions point of view, these should not be long and wordy. These are NOT meant to be “short paragraph” sentences.
- If you use more than 1000 characters, you are probably going on too long. You do not have to be especially pithy or clipped. But if you drag these sentences out, you are not helping yourself. We have already seen many applicants who have made wonderful use of this opportunity in well-under 1000 characters.
University of Virginia Application Essay Prompts
2015-2016 First Year UVA Application Essays
Towards the end of every reading season, we gather to talk about which essay questions elicited great responses, which ones could be tweaked to be better, and which essays we’d like to retire. We often pull students into our discussions to get their perspectives. There are some questions on our application that prompt students to write interesting essays year after year, so we don’t feel the need to change them. Conversations we have at Days on the Lawn and other admitted student events sometimes come into play as well.
You’ll write one essay for the general Common Application and then you’ll write two short responses to these prompts along with other questions that are specific to UVa. The Common App folks posted the main essay questions a while ago. Here are ours:
2015-2016 First-Year Application Essay Questions
- We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- College of Arts and Sciences – What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
- School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – U.Va. engineers are working to solve problems that affect people around the world, from our long-term water purification project in South Africa to continuing to research more efficient applications of solar power. However, most students start small, by using engineering to make a difference in daily life. If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make your everyday life better, what would you do?
- School of Architecture – Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
- School of Nursing – Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.
- Kinesiology Program – Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.
- Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- What’s your favorite word and why?
- We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
- Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the U.Va. culture. In her fourth year at U.Va., Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
- U.Va. students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?
A note about word limits:
We aren’t counting words on these. The word limits are there so you know that we are expecting short statements, not term papers. The boxes where you paste in your essay will cut you off at some point, but there is a little bit of leeway. Be concise and thoughtful in your statement statement and try to convey your voice and style in your words. This is the one spot on your application where your personality gets to shine, so don’t treat this like a formal school assignment.
Vanderbilt University Application Essay Questions
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150-400 words)
University of Washington Essays and Short Responses 2015
The Writing Section is a required and important part of your application for admission.
A. Personal Statement (Required)
The Personal Statement is our best means of getting to know you and your best means of creating a context for your academic performance. When you write your personal statement, tell us about those aspects of your life that are not apparent from your academic record. Tell us about the experiences that don’t show up on your transcript:
- a character-defining moment,
- the cultural awareness you’ve developed,
- a challenge faced,
- a personal hardship or barrier overcome.
Choose either A or B. Maximum length: 600 words.
- Discuss how your family’s experience or cultural history enriched you or presented you with opportunities or challenges in pursuing your educational goals.
- Tell us a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Some of the best statements are written as personal stories. We welcome your imaginative interpretation.
- You may define experience broadly. For example, in option B, experience could be a meeting with an influential person, a news story that spurred you to action, a family event, or something that might be insignificant to someone else that had particular meaning for you. If you don’t think that any one experience shaped your character, don’t worry. Simply choose an experience that tells us something about you.
B. Short Response (Required)
Choose one of the following two topics and write a short essay. Maximum length: 300 words.
- The University of Washington seeks to create a community of students richly diverse in cultural backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints. How would you contribute to this community?
- Describe an experience of cultural difference or insensitivity you have had or observed. What did you learn from it?
- You may define culture broadly in Topic #2. For example, it may include ethnicity, customs, values, and ideas, all of which contribute to experiences that students can share with others in college. As you reply to this question, reflect on what you have learned — about yourself and society — from an experience of cultural difference.
C. Additional Information About Yourself or Your Circumstances (Optional)
Maximum length: 200 words
You are not required to write anything in this section, but feel free to include additional information if something has particular significance to you. For example, you may use this space if:
- You are hoping to be placed in a specific major soon
- A personal or professional goal is particularly important to you
- You have experienced personal hardships in attaining your education
- Your activities have been limited because of work or family obligations
- You have experienced unusual limitations or opportunities unique to the schools you attended
D. Additional Space (Optional)
You may use this space if you need to further explain or clarify answers you have given elsewhere in this application, or if you wish to share information that may assist the Office of Admissions. If appropriate, include the application question number to which your comment(s) refer.
E. Activities & Achievements (Required)
Using the grid provided below, identify up to five of your most significant activities and achievements during grades 9-12. In a few bullets or sentences, indicate your contribution.
Maximum length: 50 words for each activity.
You may include activities, skills, achievements, or qualities from any of the following categories:
- Leadership in or outside of school-e.g., athletics, student government, cultural clubs, band, scouting, community service, employment
- Activities in which you have worked to better your school or community
- Exceptional achievement in an academic field or artistic pursuit
- Personal endeavors that enrich the mind, e.g., independent research or reading, private dance or music lessons, weekend language/culture school
Format for the Writing Section
- Content as well as spelling, grammar, and punctuation are considered.
- If you’re applying online, compose in a word processing program such as Word, then copy and paste into the windows provided. Double-spacing, italics, and other formatting will be lost, but this will not affect the evaluation of your application.
- We’ve observed that most students write a polished formal essay for the Personal Statement yet submit a more casual Short Response and Journal of Activities & Achievements. Give every part of the Writing Section your very best effort, presenting yourself in standard, formal English.
- Proffreed, proofreed, PROOFREAD!
- Write like it matters, not like you’re texting. This is an application for college, not a message to your BFF. Writing i instead of I, cant for cannot, yr for you’re: not so gr8.
Howdy reader. This is an update for 2015-2016: The Common App has once again changed its prompts, but this time they have largely tinkered with them, and the results are an improvement. To see this year’s prompts, look here: Application prompts 2015-2016.
What follows below remains here as a historical artifact that covers the politics and nature of changes to the Common App between 2012-2013. If that interests you, read on. If not, stick with my posts on this year’s prompts and look at my posts on topics of general interest, like how college applications are evaluated or how to write about a book.
This was my original subtitle for this post: How The Education Wars and Bureaucracy Wrecked a Pretty Good Thing.
The Old Common App prompts weren’t perfect, but they did offer a variety of choices, some of which were meant to look outward as much as inward, and the open choice prompt was a great way to inject some creativity.
But, as Heraclitus said, All is Change. Or Change is All. Either way, it’s time to start dealing with reality: in this post I will review the political forces behind the changes to the Common App essay prompts and begin my examination of the new prompts at the end of this post, with a discussion of the prompt on “a time you challenged a belief or idea,” with links to examples of this kind of essay, both in a long form journalistic style and in a short form, edited example on this topic, in the 500-word range.
I am already finding that my clients tend to dismiss this essay out of hand, because they have an image of people climbing up on the barricades and waving a flag or staging a peaceful takeover of the principal’s office as a protest. Not so, my friends. You don’t have to protest to challenge an idea. Read on through this post, to the end, to see what I mean.
In the natural world, variety is a good thing, generating both complexity and unpredictability. But in the world of the bureaucrat, unpredictability is a curse and monotony is a virtue.
Enter the new Common App prompts, which represent a massive die-off in variety both of subjects and skills explored in college application essays. These prompts are going to drive up the number of memoir-style, Woe is me, Look what I have overcome, My Life Lesson, Aren’t I a moral person kind of essays. At least this is the takeaway that many critics are offering, and I agree with it, for the most part. To understand the criticism, you should turn now to the new Common App Essay prompts, which, if you have not yet seen them, I have posted in this discussion: The Common Application: What’s New For 2013-2014.
As you can see, the topic choices may be summed up thusly: my identity; I failed (but learned from it); I rebelled (or at least resisted); I’m happy here (or there); I succeeded (and how). There is no more option six, which was basically to make up your own prompt and which, obviously, allowed for a lot of creative license. There is some good news in the midst of this, starting with the increase in word length, to 650, but keep in mind that this is a firm length–the process will be entirely electronic, and if your essay is 651 words, you will have to cut it down to submit it–just like all those corporate autofill forms that give an error message when you go over the character count. In addition, you must write at least 250 words–not much of a problem for most applicants.
Before I examine in more detail the bad aspects of the new Common App prompts, I’d like to put them in perspective and perhaps even offer them a word or two of praise–for their intent. In my view, this change in the prompts is not just to simplify essay evaluations .
Of course, it is a bureaucratic nightmare to evaluate and process anywhere from a few thousand to a couple of hundred thousand essays, and with fewer essay topics, theoretically it will be simpler to process the essays. But this is not the only motivation for the change in prompts. There is a political struggle going on as we speak, over what students should learn and how it should be tested. And the current trend is against both reading fiction and writing autobiography.
The first thing I would say for the Common App is that they do seem to be making a statement about the value of writing on personal experience, and I have a lot of sympathy for that position. We call works like those that will be elicited by the new Common App prompts “autobiography” or “autobiographical incident” or “memoir.”
But these are forms of writing that are held in very low regard by two of the other colossuses of the education landscape: The College Board and the Common Core movement. Or should I say they are held in low regard by the Common Core movement, led by David Coleman, and by the new president of the College Board, who is also David Coleman. Until last year, Coleman was primarily known as an educational consultant and entrepreneur and also as the primary architect of the new Common Core standards. But Coleman’s “reform” efforts denigrate the teaching of fiction in high schools and the writing of 1st person narratives in high schools. His dislike of autobiographical writing and of fiction in our classrooms has a common thread–I will address the value of fiction when I deal with supplemental prompts on books, focusing in this post on writing.
Here is what Coleman himself has said about autobiographical writing in high schools, quoted from an interview here:
David Coleman, president of the College Board, who helped design and promote the Common Core, says English classes today focus too much on self-expression. “It is rare in a working environment,” he’s argued, “that someone says, ‘Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood.’ ”
I happen to think this is kind of dumb and reductionist–first of all in assuming that education is purely vocational, and secondly in assuming that everybody is going to be writing reports for a living. I add to that the fact that 1st person writing is a superb and respected way to process and analyze experience, dating all the way back through Augustine’s Meditations to Julius Caesar’s account of his military campaigns, and it can make you both more thoughtful and better at analysis. It can be narcissistic and trite, but that’s where the good teacher should be stepping in.
On the other hand, the Common App’s new and entirely 1st person topics, which are pretty much a rasberry in Coleman’s direction, are also a dumb move, a narrowing of the field that was not necessary and that, rather than making the processing of essays easier, will actually make it harder as so many essays will be both undistinguished and nearly indistinguishable. The trick for you in this situation, Dear Reader, is to avoid the narrow lanes that most application writers will take as they pour out their souls, (or perhaps make something up and pretend to pour out their souls). Try to think outside the cage they have created for you with these prompts.
So in that spirit, let’s start by looking at option three, A time when you challenged a belief or idea. This seems like a topic only suitable for rebels with a cause, but I disagree. As with any kind of essay, it is a good idea to have a look at some examples before attempting to write the essay–so I think we should turn first to an essay I linked last year, about a (mostly internal) dispute with a rabbinical teacher over the meaning and value of cartoon superheroes. It’s clear the author resisted the teacher’s condemnation of comic books and their heroes, but the protest is registered as a thought process. It’s an indirect form of resistance, in which he is showing how his world view was shaped, but he wasn’t standing up and calling somebody out publicly. You can, indeed, show yourself working through an idea and taking a stance against it without having to go out and pick up a protest sign for the sake of an essay (But hey, if you do want to go to a protest in order to write about it, go for it. Hemingway went off to war pretty much for the same reason. Just be sure you do have a preexisting commitment to the cause or it will show in your essay).
Have a look at the essay to see what I mean about indirect resistance. This is far longer than what you would write, but I discuss and analyze this and show how a long essay like this one can be cut down to fit the format you will deal with–See this: Superheroes. (If you can’t open this link it’s because you do not have a subscription to my private blog, which costs 15 bucks for the full application season, from now through April. Splice this address into an e-mail and contact me if you want a subscription and are willing to pay my minimal fee: firstname.lastname@example.org )
Then read my edit of this essay–I cut it down massively as an editing exercise in a way you will need to if you tend to write long essays: An Exercise In Editing. Notice how the author sits through this class, but outside of it dons his batman cape, all the while sharpening his own thoughts and strengthening his own beliefs in a campaign of unspoken resistance to his narrow-minded teacher. No barricade, no protest sign, no organizing. But a wonderful essay.
I will return to the Common App prompts and to this specific prompt again soon, with more advice and examples.
This is the inaugural post on the topic of books and intellectual development for the 2012-2013 application year. I have previously written about this topic in a number of posts; for writing about books specifically, you should start at The Harvard Supplement; Or, How To Write About Books Part 1 , a post from last year. I will add, however, that the essay we will examine in this post could equally be used for an essay on an influential person or experience. Read on to see what I mean.
One of the problems common for my clients last year was making an essay about a book or intellectual experience a vehicle of personal expression. If you are passionate about the topic, your passion will make your essay come alive, but some of those who worked with me on their essays were so enthused about the minutiae of the intellectual experience or books that they forgot about themselves. Remember that your audience is an admissions officer and that you are really writing about yourself when you write about an intellectual experience or a book that is important to you. I have discussed audience and purpose in this post from last year, and if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend reading it now: So You Want To Write A College Essay.
The remainder of this post will be aimed at an analysis of a specific essay one of our prominent contemporary authors, a man of wide-ranging curiosity who has promoted the artistic and cultural value of such “nonliterary” forms as the comic book–make that the graphic novel. He has written about the influence of comics and other pop art forms on his life. While it may seem unorthodox or event totally inappropriate for me to start me series on intellectual experiences with an analysis of an essay on comic books, I think that you will find this post both informative and invaluable in opening up possibilities for the intellectual experience essay.
This is a sample of a much longer post with links to an excellent essay and detailed analysis of it. To access this post in full, you may either pay the minimal subscription fee, receiving full reading rights to all of my college app and essay posts, or you may retain me for college application advising and editing. This blog is a mixture of free information, particularly for general analysis and advice, and protected posts which offer very specific advice and analysis. See “Welcome To The Jungle” in the first column of this blog and the table of contents included in it for more information, as well as the “About” window.
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.