This post is mainly for rising seniors, but you forward-thinking rising juniors might also benefit from this information.
What are your plans, now that the school year is over? Will you be working a job? Will you be visiting colleges? How about other travel? Going abroad? Maybe you'll be on a mission trip in South America. Then again, maybe you don't know what you'll be doing from now until late August or early September.
Well, even if you're just going to be hanging out, whiling away the days doing nothing seemingly productive or inspiring, you can still use your brain and observations of life on Earth to conjure possible ideas fro your Common Application essay.
I know, I know; life doesn't revolve around college applications! BUT ... if you're going to go to college, you have to apply, and eventually you will come to face the challenge of writing an application essay. That thought should help you get your priorities straight.
So, how can I help you come up with a way to deal with this reality even before your fingers start producing keystrokes on your Common App? I glad you asked!
Quick recap. In our last episode (my previous blog post), I noted the 2017-2018 Common Application essay prompts, which you'll be faced with. Let's take another look at them:
- 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 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?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Now, let's assume that you will be doing more than just sitting in your room over the summer, or be at poolside texting half the people in the Manhattan white pages. Let's say that you're working a job for the summer, maybe something like a behind-the-counter dispenser of ice cream, fast food, pizza, or some other product that people like. How can you use that experience to gather possible ideas for your Common App essay?
First, take a look at those prompts again. Which ones could possibly apply to a job where you're up close and personal with the great American public?
I see three possibilities: numbers 2, 3, and 4. How could you match your work experience to any of those?
First, consider #2. It says: 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? The keyword there is "incident." What kind of incident may have happened to you that caused you to fail? It doesn't have to be a gigantic failure. In fact, some of the best topics for this prompt would include small failures, such as having your grocery store display of Pepsi bottles collapse as if an earthquake hit it.
The point of exploiting a small "failure" is not so much the failure itself but, rather, how you relate it in your writing. Sometimes it's better to write about small failures rather than big failures because of the opportunity to use humor. I have touted humor many times over the years here. As I always say, "Make an admissions officer smile and you're halfway home."
A former admission application reader I know once told me that the best essay she ever read was about a laundry mishap. Again, it's not the magnitude of your failure, it's how you write about it. So, while you're doing whatever you're going to be doing this summer, be on the lookout for "failures," big or, more likely, small.
How about 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?
If you're going to be around people this summer (who won't be around people?), you may encounter someone, or even a group of people, who espouse a strong opinion about something with which you disagree. How have you handled that in the past?
Are you the type of person who defends your opposing viewpoints? Or, are you someone who doesn't want to confront anyone?
Regarding being the latter type of person, you may find that chickening out and missing your change to challenge an opposing point of view could give you some ammo for Prompt #2, since you could spin that missed chance as a failure. In today's highly charged political climate, it's going to be fairly easy to encounter others with ideas or beliefs that differ from yours.
So, be ready to make some notes about any situation where you were inspired to spring to the defense of what you believe to be true. Also keep notes on what specifically triggered your decision to act. Once again, don't overlook the chance to use a smaller incident as essay material.
Prompt 4 is longish but full of potential: 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.
This one agrees with my approach, where it states: ... anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. As you go through whatever you'll be doing this summer, be on the lookout for small victories. Did you come up with a better way to stock shelves at the grocery store? How about a faster way to wash Dad's or Mom's car? Did you fix the problem you were having on the tennis court getting your second serve in deeper? Maybe you solved Fermat's Last Theorem (if so, you don't need essay tips from me!).
You get what I'm trying to say, right? Keep your eyes and mind open. Ideas are everywhere. You may even be able to come across some summer inspiration that allows you to eloquently use Prompts 1 and 5 to your advantage. I hope so.
Let me summarize about how to use your summer to prospect for essay topics ...
Think of your summer (or maybe even your ongoing life) as the voiceover narration of a movie. I'm thinking of movies like The Thin Red Line, Goodfellas, Apocalypse Now, or even A Clockwork Orange. In these, the narrator describes action, circumstances, and thought processes that apply to the overall quality and experiences of the main character(s).
Your job, as the "voiceover" (narrator) of your "movie" (life experiences) is to capture those meaningful moments that can be converted into an effective essay. If you don't know what I mean, take a moment and go to YouTube and sample some scenes from any of those films I mention.
If you can capture the art of internal narration, it's not hard to make the jump to highly interesting essay writing. You just need to take good notes, so don't be afraid to keep a little notebook with you or, probably more commonly, use your phone to discreetly record your thoughts and then transcribe them when you get home.
You may think that my ideas about gathering material for application essays are extreme and tiresome. However, when you're sitting in front of your computer, frozen in writer's block, you'll wish that you had made a note or two about that bagel shop customer you sold the bagels to and what she said to you about [whatever].
And -- for the umpteenth time -- don't forget about humor. The world (and your admissions readers) could use a good laugh!
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.