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The Admissions Essay: Don’t Let the Prompts Define You

Say it’s a loved one’s birthday. You plan on going out and buying them a gift that’s unique to your relationship and makes them think of how thoughtful and caring you are. But alas, you’re crunched for time and the birthday party is tonight, so you gather all your allowance and decide to get the gift box before you buy the gift from the shop close by. Evening comes and as you get your present together, you realize that the perfect gift you bought doesn’t fit in the box, and it’s too late to buy another! This situation might seem far off in an age when millennials rarely ever wrap presents, but is pretty revealing when we discuss how students approach the college admissions essay.

More often than not, students have no idea where to start with their admissions essay. In the context of school uniforms, high school sports teams, and standardized tests, most students have a difficult time pinpointing what makes them unique.  Students default to the essay prompts and think “THIS is my topic,” buying the gift box before buying the gift. They show their work to the college counselor, and the counselor decides it’s too cliche or not very unique, urging the student to write another draft. Students become frustrated by this constant editing cycle and by the time November 1st rolls around, they’re submitting an essay that sounds nothing like them. All they had to do to avoid this situation was tweak their brainstorming process just a little, to choose the best gift before buying the box.

Based on how most english essays are assigned in high school, it’s natural for students to start brainstorming by immediately looking at the prompts. In order to avoid the gift not fitting in the box situation, however, students should start by laying out the raw material. Every student, regardless of their background, has lived a unique life. Something that might seem mundane to them can really be the saving grace that exemplifies their authenticity. Clubs, community service, and other extracurriculars don’t necessarily illustrate who a student is or what makes them unique. Their outlook on life is the cake, and those extracurriculars are just the icing that help show their unique perspective in action. To help them reach this “revelation,” we probe students to ask themselves what excites them. What would they do professionally if they were a billionaire and financial security wasn’t an issue? What national or local problems intrigue them the most? These types of questions help students view themselves as individuals with purpose instead of one of many applicants who see college as the next step in an aimless journey.

Rather than having their lives fit the prompt, students should lay out all of their interesting experiences, and see what prompt best fits their distinctive life experiences. Students will be left with an essay that not only highlights the key qualities that they want admissions officers to be aware of, but also an essay that is honest, authentic, and compelling.

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