Preparing for College

Applying You to Your Application Essays

There are two sides to every story, they say.  I say there are two sides to every application essay: (1) your side and (2) the college’s side.  The New York Times Magazine ran an essay contest inspired by Rick Perlstein’s essay, “What's the Matter With College.”  The 600 or so responses cover some interesting ground.

What you can see in these entries is the contrast between writers who write what they want to say (the winners) and those who write what the contest judges want to hear (the losers).  Therein lies the critical key for those of you involved in, or planning to become involved in, the college application process.  This is when you will confront the application essay challenge.


There are a lot of opinions out there about application essays.  You’ll find blogs, articles, and books galore.  But what happens when your bundle of writing skills meets the probing prompts of the various schools to which you want to reply?

The Common Application is likely to be your main platform for applying to your desired schools.  You’ll be required to respond to one of its prompts:

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
  • 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 explain that influence.
  • A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
  • Topic of your choice.

Then, you’ll most likely have to respond to more prompts on those annoying application supplements, some of which can range from mundane:

Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study. (Reference.)

To the pretentious:

The short film Powers of Ten begins with an aerial shot of a couple picnicking in a Chicago park. The camera zooms out ten meters. It then zooms out again, but the degree of the zoom has increased by a power of ten; the camera is now 100 meters away. It continues to 1,000 meters, then 10,000, and so on, traveling through the solar system, the galaxy, and eventually to the edge of the known universe. Here the camera rests, allowing us to examine the vast nothingness of the universe, black void punctuated sparsely by galaxies so far away they appear as small stars. The narrator comments, "This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception." Then the camera reverses its journey, zooming in to the picnic, and—in negative powers of ten—to the man’s hand, the cells in his hand, the molecules of DNA within, their atoms, and then the nucleus both "so massive and so small" in the "vast inner space" of the atom.

Zoom in and out on a person, place, event, or subject of interest. What becomes clear from far away that you can’t see up close? What intricate structures appear when you move closer? How is the big view related to the small, the emptiness to the richness? (Reference)

So, after digesting all the above, keep in mind those New York Times Magazine essay contest entrants.  Make the quality choice between being a writer who writes what s/he wants to say and one who writes what the “contest judges” (those would be the admissions officers) want to hear.

Which is the quality choice?  Most definitely the former.

Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.