The 2016-17 Common Application platform went live last week, and in the ensuing weeks you will undoubtedly read a lot about the Common App’s personal essay. You will read about essays that worked and didn’t work. You will read about what each prompt means, which prompts are better than others, and what admissions officers are looking for in these 650-word representations of each applicant. The one thing you won’t read is that the Common App’s essay prompts don’t really matter.
I’ll say it again: The prompts don’t matter.
Here’s why. The admissions essay’s true purpose is to tell admissions officers something they don’t know about you and that isn’t represented anywhere else on the application. The essay should aim to reveal something about your true passions, interests, and goals while giving a taste of your personality. Reading your essay should give admissions officers insight into what it would be like to have a conversation with you. What makes you tick. What makes you, you.
While an essay prompt can serve as an inspirational launch point for a brilliant topic or story idea, over the years I have found many students get too caught up in trying to decide which prompt to tackle before they even understand which of their stories and characteristics they want to put on display. It’s like choosing the icing flavor before you decide you’re going to bake a cake (instead of, say, cooking spaghetti).
Decide what meal you are going to serve admissions first. What, of the many things you have to offer, will be the most satisfying tidbit you can lay down in front of someone who wants to know you better?
At College Essay Advisors, we call this approach to ignoring the prompt in favor of concentrating on the story, “The Backwards Brainstorm.” The Backwards Brainstorm involves four simple steps:
1. Take a cursory look at the Common Application’s essay prompts to get generally acquainted with them. (Hi prompts! You seem nice!)
2. Forget about the prompts. Forever. Okay, just for a while, but still: say goodbye. (Sayonara!)
3. Collect your best stories and ruminate on your defining characteristics. What doesn’t admissions know about you that you want them to know? What moments in your life have shaped you and made you the person you are today? Run through some exercises to find that magic topic. Nail down that central idea or, at the very least, a few frontrunners. (Gotta catch ‘em all.)
4. Dig those prompts out of cold storage. (Prompts! I missed you! Sort of.) Read each one with your essay topic in mind. Choose the prompt that most closely fits the tale you aim to tell. Eh, voilà! You are now telling a story that both serves you well and meets all of the Common App’s requirements. You are basically a genius.
Common App 1: Background and Identity
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 valedictorian at my school can play the trombone. She's a black belt in jiu-jitsu, and she invented a new way to keep bread fresh. She's pretty amazing, but I don't think she's that unusual. In the stack of essays being considered for admission, I would guess she's the rule more than the exception.
I haven't invented anything. I can only play the kazoo, and the only belt I own came free with the suit. What I have to offer isn't as obvious as most applicants, but what I represent is important. My generation is one raised by pop culture, and while denigrating it, scions of elder generations ignore one simple fact: today's pop culture manufactures tomorrow's legends.
How can an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture contribute to a better way of life? Partly because this is the language of the future. I already speak it fluently, and any other ideas will be layered on top. The other reason is that although things like popular movies, books, and video games get dismissed, they actually have a lot to say.
While teachers might struggle to bring the story of Oedipus to modern students, I got what was going on quickly…because I watch Game of Thrones. The plotlines of incest and revenge, as well as defying the gods, are explored in great detail on the show. So when it came time to understand, I was able to map the characters onto one another, facilitating both my understanding and that of my friends, whom I could help with the reading.
Additionally, when I learned about the Wars of the Roses, it didn't take long for me to understand the importance of the Yorks and the Lancasters. I already had a window into both art and history from a television show, and my knowledge of it helped me understand both incarnations better.
It's not just facts and art that pop culture helps illuminate; most of my moral leaders have been fictional. Katniss Everdeen and Tony Stark both taught me about the importance of perseverance. Spider-Man's motto is "with great power comes great responsibility." The Terminator movies pressed the importance of preparing for the future while pointing out that the future is not set. While the teachers of these lessons might be unorthodox, they are the cornerstones of many religions and philosophies.
These stories are often rooted, consciously or not, in religion and folklore. When Captain America chooses not to fight his friend, instead literally turning the other cheek in the face of violence, not only do I understand the significance, but I am also able to point to a concrete place in space and time where this was the correct response.
Many people will agree that books, movies, and even television can contain lessons, but they still say to throw video games away. They call them a waste of time at best. This falls apart under a similar examination of the form.
The Assassin's Creed series, for example, taught me a bit about history. While I understand the Assassins and the Templar are not really secret societies fighting a millennia-old war, the people they run into are real. During the Revolution section in American History, I was the only one who knew minor players like Charles Lee and understood his significance. I also know names like Rodrigo Borgia, Robespierre, and Duleep Singh thanks to these games.
We all embrace what we love, and I have done that with the culture that has raised me. While I appreciate it on the surface level, as entertainment, I understand there is more to it. It has caused me to learn more than I would have in school. When I fight a new enemy in a historical game, I look him up.
Many of your applicants will run away from their time appreciating the mass art of their generation. Not me. I am fluent in the language of my time. I am uniquely suited to understanding and applying these concepts to higher learning. What you're getting with me is someone who will be able to bridge the gap between past and present, and apply their education to the future.
Why This Essay Works
This essay acknowledges the applicant's weaknesses from the beginning. By adopting a funny, self-deprecating attitude, the essay instantly stands out from the others around it. Although humor is there and is an integral part of the essay, it never takes over the narrative. It's used in the very beginning to separate itself from the pack, then moves into a more traditional inventory as it develops.
After humorously deconstructing the candidate's weaknesses, it moves into strengths. Many applicants don't know what their strengths are, and the purpose here is to show that even what you might regard as a weakness can be recast as a strength if you know how. Essentially, the writer declares a paradox in their thesis statement: all that time people say they wasted watching movie and playing video games is actually a strength.
The most important part is in the body, where the writer then backs up what they're saying. Making unfounded claims is good for attracting attention, but not so good for getting into college. The key is understanding what you've learned from your time enjoying culture. The writer then hits it, point by point, showing where movies, television, and video games have all made them a more ideal candidate for entry.
The conclusion dramatically restates the thesis, and includes the most stirring line at the end. This applicant is fluent in the language of today, and uses a rhythmic three-part statement on the end to drive the point home. This student knows they are not the traditional over-achiever that colleges are said to want; instead, they show that they're bold and innovative, two qualities that are irresistible.