Common App 2010 Essay Prompts

In preparation for a segment on NBC’s “Today” show this morning, I reached out to the admissions offices at the University of Virginia and Occidental College in California for examples of essays that they considered memorable — for good, or ill.

Before I share some of these samples, a caveat (one familiar to regular readers of this blog): while it can be instructive to read actual college admissions essays, trying to copy a particular approach — or in some cases avoid it — can be perilous. That’s because how one responds to an essay can be an intensely personal experience.

That said, I would argue that there are some basic lessons to be gleaned from the following examples. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an essay that was not especially well received at the University of Virginia, in part because the writer misjudged the age and sensibility of his or her audience:

John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ was sung by Fox’s new show, ‘Glee.’ In one particular episode, a deaf glee club performed this song. I heard it before when John Lennon sang it: unfortunately I did not care much for it. When I watched this episode while the deaf adolescents were singing it, and soon joined by another glee club, it surprisingly affected me…

John Lennon sang it like a professional, but what he did not have was the emotion behind the words. He sang it more staccato than legato. He sang it like it was his job, and nothing more. These singers from Glee sang with powerful emotions. …

Another essay, also musical in focus, got a more appreciative read at U.V.A.:

I strode in front of 400 frenzied eighth graders with my arm slung over my Fender Stratocaster guitar — it actually belonged to my mother — and launched into the first few chords of Nirvana’s ‘Lithium.’ My hair dangled so low over my face that I couldn’t see the crowd in front of me as I shouted ‘yeah, yeah’ in my squeaky teenage voice. I had almost forgotten that less than a year ago I had been a kid whose excitement came from waiting for the next History Channel documentary.

It was during the awkward, hormonal summer between seventh and eighth grade when I first heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ The song shocked my senses — until that point my musical cosmos consisted mainly of my father’s Beatles CDs.

I would argue that the admissions committee was able to relate a little more to this essay than the first. And it was certainly more evocative and detailed. It also conveyed more about the writer (and applicant) — a crucial quality in a college admissions essay.

I turn, now, to excerpts from a recent essay that struck a visceral chord within the admissions office at Occidental (where, as an aside, President Obama began his college career):

My head throbbed as I closed my eyes and tried to convince myself to give up.

‘Come on, Ashley. Put the pencil down. Just put the pencil down and go to bed,’ I told myself sternly. I had been hard at work for hours — brutal, mind-numbing hours. I groaned as I moved over to my bed, collapsing in a pile of blankets and closing my eyes.

I lay there for a moment or two, gathering strength, gaining courage. My tense shoulders began to unclench as I stretched out and opened my bleary eyes…

Suddenly, I bolted upright on my bed, eyes wide, blankets flying. Everything had fallen into place. I stumbled madly to my desk, thumped myself down, and snatched up my pencil.

‘I’ve got it! That’s it!’ I whooped, scribbling furiously, as my brother pounded on my wall for silence.

I had just won another skirmish in my ongoing battle with the crossword puzzle.

What worked here? I’m told the admissions officers appreciated how the writer conveyed her love of words — and in the process told them much about herself. As a writer, I admired the way she built a sense of mystery at the outset, one that served to draw the reader in.

I’ll close with an attempt at metaphor that fell a bit flat, at least in its reception at Occidental. The applicant writes:

I believe in jello; a silly greeting, tasty dessert, or the answer to life as we know it?

Factor #1: Have you ever tried to make jello? It takes patience. First you have to boil the water; then mix it with powder, stirring for two minutes; then finally adding the cold water and putting it in the fridge for forty-five minutes. Think about the creation of people…

To share your own thoughts on essay strategies — and, perhaps, some excerpts of your own — please use the comment box below.

Attention Juniors: The 2016-2017 college application season has officially begun. The Common Application, otherwise known as the Common App, released its list of essay prompts.

The application doesn’t go live until August, but this is your one chance to tell the colleges your “story,” and we encourage you to start thinking of an answer now.

Overall, admissions offices are looking for you to reveal something that distinguishes you or sets you apart from others in your own voice. The current word count on the essays is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length.

Families working with International College Counselors will work directly with their counselors on the content and editing of the essays, so there is no need to worry. For families interested in essay editing only, please visit our sister company, Edit The Work.

PROMPT #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This first question is broad and gives you a lot of latitude. The prompt asks you to write about either a passion or something that defines you as a person. This means write about something unique and specific to you and no one else. The best essays include a story you need to tell in order for people to understand you. A “background” central to your identity can include your religion or ethnicity, living in a foreign country, experiencing a challenging issue growing up, or a unique family situation. Make sure you describe how your background affected who you are, what you value, and how you approach your life. If you choose to write about an “interest” or “talent,” (i.e. sports, the arts, speech and debate, stamp collecting, bird watching, performing magic tricks, etc.), make sure you reflect on how it shaped you on a deep level. It’s critical that you reveal more about you than what you like to do or how good you are at doing it. Make sure the story you choose is one you haven’t told elsewhere in your application.

PROMPT #2: 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?

Admissions doesn’t really want to hear about your failure, rather, they want to know how you thought you failed, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned. A good answer to this question will reveal how you deal with and overcome hardship. A great essay will show that you are the kind of person who can bounce back and learn from an experience. Do not choose a trite failure like losing a race. Also, do not draw attention to something you did that was illegal or dangerous, like distracted driving. If you can’t keep your essay positive, do not choose to answer this question.

PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

“Challenged a belief or idea” means that you took some kind of action either on your own behalf or on the behalf of someone or something else. In this essay then, you need to speak passionately about a belief or an idea, in a compact story with a beginning, middle and end. In the essay you also need to express what you learned from the experience. Responses are supposed to be personal, but make sure your idea of belief is not controversial. You do not know who will be reading your essay and you certainly do not want to turn anyone off to you. It is better to show that you are open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others. And don’t preach. The admissions committee includes this prompt for students who define themselves by what they believe in and/or what they are willing to stand up for. Some ideas: An essay about pursuing an activity even though an adult told you wouldn’t be successful in it; an essay about challenging a group of friends who told you to do something that you thought was wrong; an essay about standing up for someone you saw being treated unfairly — perhaps even yourself.

PROMPT #4: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

If you choose to answer this essay, you need to identify a problem with meaning and importance to you. This can be any problem “no matter the scale.” One variation of this is a community service project. Other variations include not eating meat, bullying, not having money, school tests, etc. So don’t stress about not having a significant issue to write about. Even an everyday problem with significance to you can be turned into a great essay. Colleges like to see how the thinking, so include your decision-making process. It is also very important to choose a problem that is specific and meaningful and can end with you providing a solution – as the prompt asks. Do not choose a problem that is superficial or generic. This essay should tell the colleges what you value and give them an idea of your outlook on life. If you elect to tackle this particular question, take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate creative and critical thinking skills.

PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In this prompt, both “accomplishment” and “event” leave themselves open to interpretation. This means, you can write about anything from a formal event to a very small happening. However, remember that the admissions reader is looking for a moment in your life that really changed you as a person. Everyone is different so an event or accomplishment might encompass anything from birthdays and weddings (formal), to achievements like earning an award or winning an election (informal). Other topics can be something as simple as working with a mentor, visiting a relative’s old neighborhood, or eating a particularly meaningful meal. You know you found the right story when it has the element of transition and transformation. The event or accomplishment you discuss should be something that helped you understand the world around you in a more adult way or forced you to “grow up.” In other words, choose an event, challenge or experience where you learned something that made you feel more capable and grown up.

IMPORANT SUMMARY NOTE: Admissions wants a glimpse of your personality, your values, your interests and your passions. They want to get an idea of what kind of attitude and energy you will bring to the classroom and campus life.

Do not have someone else write your essay, and do not wait to write your essay. Our favorite essays always took a lot of time and effort!

Filed Under: College Essays, International College Counselors blogTagged With: 2016 common app essay, 2016 common application essay, 2017 common app essay, 2017 common application essay, common app essay, common app prompt, common app question, common appellation question, common application essay, write common app essay

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