There were several changes to the Common Application essay prompts (www.commonapp.org) this year and I thought it would be helpful to offer a strategy for responding to them. I’ll start with the two new prompts (one is actually a revival of an older prompt), then circle back and offer some tips for answering the holdovers, and revised ones.
The first new prompt is number six. “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?”
This essay prompt is an attempt to learn about a student through his or her most fervent interest. For you, the student, it’s an excellent opportunity to reveal a number of positive aspects of yourself.
Six tips for answering Common Application essay prompt #6
- Only answer this prompt if you truly have an interest that makes you lose all track of time. A mild interest, or something you think is supposed to captivate you – the poetry of Byron and Keats! – will not work; it will be obvious you’re faking it.
- Don’t second guess your interest as not serious enough. If you find memorizing limericks (www.funny-poems-for-free.com/funny-limericks.html) that engaging, go for it. The topic itself is not the key to this essay. It’s your feeling about it, your resourcefulness in gathering information, how you apply your knowledge, the connections you make from it.
- Try to include a narrative of some sort, for example, how you first became interested in the topic, idea or concept. How it grew within you. Where you want to go with it. How you see it playing out in college and beyond.
- Use clear, specific examples of your obsession. It could be a time you gave up going to a concert with your friends so you could spend the evening pursuing your passion, or the time you woke up at 3 AM for a week straight to get a glimpse of a comet you’d been studying. Whatever it might be, utilize the “show don’t tell” approach to writing.
- In answering why the topic captivates you, first describe your enthusiasm in vivid, enthusiastic language. You can always pull it back on the second draft but it will be helpful to the essay, and even for yourself, to articulate your passion. In addition, using lively words, phrases and references will make it easier for the reader to feel your excitement. Then, going beyond that, be as introspective and open as possible about why this topic captivates you. If the topic is jazz, for example, you might talk about how the interplay of the musicians reflects your own beliefs of working together toward a common goal and even the shared global objectives of your fellow men and women. If the concept is stem cell research, you can discuss how the death of your beloved grandfather stimulated your fascination with issues of longevity. Remember it’s a personal essay; don’t hesitate to be personal.
- In answering, “what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”, it’s not enough to say “the internet.” Mention a particular website, YouTube channel, or blog, whatever. If you have a family member or mentor outside the family, write about how it makes you feel to have someone who is nurturing you and how you want to someday be that person for someone else. Again, if there is a narrative associated with how that person came to be your “go to” advisor – maybe you discovered your elderly next door neighbor was a World War II fighter pilot, which started your interest in WWII – try to bring that to life for the reader.
A tentative flow for Common Application essay prompt #6
Opening. As with any college application essay, try to create a reason for the reader to continue reading. This can be done by describing what you do when you pursue your passion – turn off your phone, make sure there’s a frozen pizza in the fridge, whatever – without revealing what the passion is until the end of the opening paragraph. You might also recite esoteric facts about the topic that have captivated your interest or simply describe how your passion for the topic began.
Body of essay. As described above, start the narrative as soon as possible. You can stray from it as the essay continues – with examples, specifics, etc. – but the sooner you start the “story” of your fascination with this concept, the better.
Closing. Project how you see your interest playing out in college, and beyond. Has it led you to your major? A career choice? Or will it always be an escape from the everyday world? You can also state that you plan to seek other students who share your passion. If a club or organization exists, you’ll join it. Otherwise, you’ll start one. If your interest is elephants, you will seek to participate in a “Save the Elephants” (www.savetheelephants.org) organization. The point is to demonstrate to the reader that you have gone beyond merely losing track of time, and that you are thinking of practical ways to not only continue exploring this engrossing topic, but to help others explore it, too.
In my next blog, I’ll offer some ideas about how to approach Common Application essay prompt #7, “Share an essay on any topic of your choice.”
For more personal help with the Common Application essay, college specific application essays, or Personal Statements for medical, law or graduate school, please contact Craig Heller at 818-445-4697 or firstname.lastname@example.org.