Posts Tagged ‘common application prompt three’

What Is Wrong With The New Common Application Essay Prompts and What To Do About It: Part I

In Common Application 2013-2014, Common Application Essay Prompt Three on July 10, 2013 at 10:41 am

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: wordguild@gmail.com )

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.


Starting Your College Application Essays For 2012-2013: The Four Types

In Common Application Essays, Essay Beginning With a Quote, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Essay on Intellectual Development, Harvard Application Supplement, Princeton Application Essay, University of Chicago Application Essay on July 2, 2012 at 8:36 am

Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started.  If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities.  Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year:  Common App 2012-2013.

I also encourage you to consider the fact that  the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system.  There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my  clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.

To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here.  Scroll down the post to find the list.

Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.

Essay Prompts:  Four Basic Kinds

One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories.  You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays.  Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked  to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts.  This is a good thing.  Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind:  the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.

Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:

1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.

2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person.  This overlaps with the category below.

3. Intellectual experience prompts.  This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.

4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts.  This is a broad category, ranging from  topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of:  “Find x.”  The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.

You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you.  If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay.  The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required  essays,  filling out forms and getting materials organized for  your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.

If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about  in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer.  Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity).  Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?

For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles,  in a post that is coming soon, .

In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past.  I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s.  For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here:    So You Want To Write A College Essay. 

Prompt Type 1:  Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself.  Many universities use this kind of prompt.  The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about).  Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.

The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself  (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.

I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post.  You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.

Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences.  Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes  from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description.  The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it.  This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience.  These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.

Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of  universities that  make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced  you.  For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link:  my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.

Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay.  The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values.  While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve  connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes.  Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.

Prompt Type 4:  Problem and Puzzle prompts.  As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like  “Find X.”   U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and  a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.”  You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers?  Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)

If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt.  This article is only fully available  to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.

Many problem prompts can be researched.  In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is  something you can prepare for.  Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest.  Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did  not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt.  See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two  as well as  this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.

I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.

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.

Writing An Essay About An Important Influence

In Autobiographical College Essay, Autobiographical Essay, common application, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Influential Experience Essay, Influential Person Essay on July 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Many applications ask for an essay on a person who influenced you or on an important experience.  There are wrinkles to this kind of question–in some cases, the “person” can be a fictional character and the influence can be a work of art, as in one of the prompts from the Common Application in recent years.  (Note–this is possible as an approach for prompts like the “person of influence” that begins tthe 2017-2018 Princeton application essays, but this is a reach; they really want insight into your personal experience, your world view and experiences, and living through a fictional character is a stretch–though I have had clients pull it off.  The key is to choose good books that have occupied a large place in your life and influenced your perspective, curiosity and interests.  On the other hand, if you are really into a specific character, why not just turn to an author who has influenced you–that might work.   Of course the same topic focus could work for a  different prompt, in this year’s Princeton essays, that could be anything from culture to the quote-from-a-book prompt.) 

This post will discuss this kind of prompt by specifically addressing prompts three and four of the Common Application for 2011-2012, but the discussion in general is useful for any essay about a personal influence, including those that will have that topic in 2017-2018.

Let’s start by looking at the old Common App prompts three and prompt four together, as they in some ways overlap, and they are similar to Princeton’s personal influence prompt for this year:

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you and describe that influence

Like Prompt Four, Prompt Three is based on personal experience, but the intent of the prompters is that the essay on Prompt Three be about a person with whom you have direct, personal experience. This is the kind of autobiographical essay commonly taught in high school, and I see many of these essays written about coaches, teachers and other mentor figures. Your college admissions officers also see many essays like this. Keep that in mind. You might want to visit my earlier posts about audience and the rhetorical situation, beginning here.

Less commonly, I have seen essays on Prompt Three about the influence of, say, a younger sibling or of a person the writer has met only once but who made a profound impact on the writer. While most who address this prompt write about a positive experience or influence, some writers examine more ambiguous or even malevolent figures in their lives.

This post continues analyzing this essay prompt in detail and concludes with exercises to help you write a vivid and appealing essay.

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 2018.  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 2017-2018 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.