Well, it’s that time of year again: college essay time!
As a professional, I always like to change things up. Fortunately for me, this year the Common Application decided to adopt entirely new prompts for the essay section.
Many college counselors moan and groan about these changes. Are they the best ones to let kids show off their innermost feelings and their outermost dreams? Will they allow students to freely express their thoughts, communicate their abilities, and articulate their ambitions?
These are interesting questions, but not the ones that will help students focus on what are now staring them in the face: the Common Application prompts as they are. No sense moaning. We have to deal with them.
So this is the first in a series of posts to help students sort out the meaning of the prompts, and to offer some tips on how to address each one.
Today we start with the first prompt : The Background Story.
Here’s how it reads:
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
To help us along, I’ve highlighted the most important words in these two short sentences. I’m going to address each below—not in the order of their appearance—but in order of their importance.
Identity: This is the pivot of the prompt. However you address this prompt, you are being asked about your identity. You are asked to address the fundamental nature of how you see yourself as a person. Who are you? What are you? What makes you, well, you? Admissions officers want to be able to say, “hey, I understand who this kid is and where he came from, because the kid understands this about himself and is able to communicate it in a clear, compelling fashion.” So, this essay must address your identity, however you define it.
Background: College admissions people know that some people have an interesting background that is the source of their identity. This background can be cultural, ethnic, familial, medical, physical, economic, or just about any other set of circumstances that defines who you are as a person.
Story: Some students have a story that helps define who they are. A story, by definition, is a narrative, an account of events in one’s life that may help to shape your identity. A background is something that is not really fixed in time: it’s a circumstance. A story, on the other hand, exists in time, and has a beginning, middle, and end. Do you have a story that helps to explain the way you see yourself, that has helped to form you as a person? If so, this is the story at the core of this prompt.
Incomplete: This word is also important. If your background or story does not really help to shape your identity, then perhaps your application is “complete” without this story. You should then be looking at other prompts for inspiration.
So to summarize, as you approach this prompt, you need to be able to clearly communicate your identity, and then you need to give the background or story that shapes that identity.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the second prompt, which is all about something we all wish to avoid (in vain): failure.
VIEW THE COMPLETE SERIES OF POSTS ANALYZING THE COMMON APPLICATION PROMPTS
Writing About Failure
Writing About A Belief or Idea
Writing About A Place or Environment
Writing About the Transition to Adulthood
Writing About Your Background Story
Filed Under: Application Tips, College Essays, UncategorizedTagged With: Application, college application, college essay, Common App, Common Application, essay
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.