In my last post, I discussed what is know as The Significant Experience Essay, which appeared, among other places, in Prompt 1 of the Common Application Personal Statement for 2011-2012. Possibly you’ve done the prewriting exercise I recommended in the last post, and you may even now have an essay in hand and are looking for further assistance. I do provide proofreading and editing services through Mr. B’s Flying Essay Service (rush jobs) and Wordguild Writing Services, both remotely (via e-mail) and in person within a limited geographical area. See the About section of this blog site for more information on those services. In this post I will discuss how to continue developing ideas for this Significant Experience Essay and will suggest a couple of places to look for examples of Significant Experience essays or descriptions.
In this post, I will offer some suggestions for those who may want to write about a significant personal experience but have trouble coming up with much when asked to list their achievements, risks or ethical dilemmas. Refer to the last post for the details of this exercise.
I will restate the prompt and then examine each area it defines:
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
These three areas could, of course, be discussed in a single essay. Perhaps you did face an ethical dilemma, took a risk to deal with it and achieved something worthy as a result. This would be a nice trifecta.
On the other hand, you might have struggled to get more than a few things listed in the prewriting exercise (e.g, made soccer team, learned to swim butterfly, reached level 10 of Kill Corps, read the Grapes of Wrath despite myself). Perhaps feel like you’ve never experienced something like a real ethical dilemma. If so, this post is for you.
You may feel that your experiences are pretty limited, but by the age of four or five, have something to say about each of the topic areas raised by this prompt. By the time you’ve even reached kindergarten, you’ve already had the important human experiences: you’ve had to decide whether to tell a lie or not (ethics), conquered many challenges (Learning how to tie your shoes and to float in a pool are both pretty big achievements) and taken many risks.
So start by considering yourself: what things in your life make up your strongest memories. What matters to you is what matters here.
For you, reading the novel Grapes of Wrath when your Junior English teacher inflicted it on you might be a great accomplishment. But surely, you say, this is not worthy of an essay.
Why not? Other writers have, in recent years, produced books about reading the French author Marcel Proust and the the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. You don’t even have to have read Proust or Tolstoy to enjoy these books (Find How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, for examples of books about reading specific books).
But is this not an essay about books, then, you ask? Of course it is, which makes it also suitable for something like the Harvard Supplemental Essay for 2011-2012, which asked for an essay about books, as did the Stanford 2011-2012 application. Look for a post soon which examines how many different prompts overlap or can be addressed by the same essay–this is something you should note if you are applying to more than a few colleges. One essay may be used to address several different prompts for different college applications, with little or no tinkering. Of course, you will probably need several very different essays to start with–you should never turn in two essays on the same trip or the same readings, for example.
To continue with the Significant Experience essay prompt, risk topic: perhaps you feel that you haven’t taken any real risks. The issue in this topic is defining what a risk is. Most people immediately think of physical risk, but psychological risks are everywhere, as you know if you’ve been turned down when you asked someone to a dance or you flubbed a line of a play in front of an audience. And any physically risky activity carries with it a psychological risk as well as the obvious chance of physical injury. Have you ever dropped an easy pass that would have won the game for your team and then had to deal with the disappointment–or anger–of teammates or coaches? Talk about a risk to your ego. In fact, your response to a defeat or an error you made when you took a risk is a good area for you to explore. Triumph is great, but tumbling into the pit of failure and climbing out again can be even more interesting and revealing in a college application essay. Risk is everywhere. Use it.
Another topic area is the ethical dilemma. It should be relatively easy to come up with an experience for this one–ethical dilemmas present themselves every day. Ethics is a field of philosophy, but it is also a practical activity engaged in by every human living in a community. When have you had to decide between something you were taught–or felt instinctively–to be right or wrong? Small children know about this and make these decisions every time they are asked who made the mess or who broke the glass or who took the cookie. Not to mention the decisions students make about whether to study hard or to cheat on a test or assignment.
The trick in an essay on ethics is to discuss the matter with a sense of perspective and, hopefully, even humor. You may have chosen to do something unethical and then had to rectify it, which adds an element of drama to your narrative but which also adds an element of risk. You want to show, ultimately, that you are ethical. You also want to avoid appearing too uptight or self-righteous. Keep that in mind if you decide to write to this topic. A serious ethical breach may not be a wise topic here, unless you can show how you’ve changed.
Take some time to doodle on a piece of paper now if you were unable to work with the three column exercise in the last blog post and see what comes to mind when you explore your memories of risks, achievements and ethical dilemmas.