Tips for the Personal Essay Options on the Common Application Avoid Pitfalls and Make the Most of Your Personal Essay

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Tips for the Personal Essay Options on the Common Application

Avoid Pitfalls and Make the Most of Your Personal Essay

By Allen Grove,

Option #1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Note the key word here: evaluate. You aren't just describing something; the best essays will explore the complexity of the issue. When you examine the "impact on you," you need to show the depth of your critical thinking abilities. Introspection, self-awareness and self-analysis are all important here. And be careful with essays about the winning touchdown or tie-breaking goal. These sometimes have an off-putting "look how great I am" tone and very little self-evaluation.

The Job I Should Have Quit

You can learn a lot about me from a quick glance in my closet. You’ll find no clothes, but shelves filled with motorized Lego kits, Erector sets, model rockets, remote control race cars, and boxes full of motors, wires, batteries, propellers, soldering irons and hand tools. I’ve always enjoyed building things. No one was surprised when I decided to apply to college for mechanical engineering.

When last May a friend of my father’s asked me if I wanted a summer job working for his machining company, I jumped at the opportunity. I would learn how to use computer-operated lathes and milling machines, I would gain valuable hands-on experience for my college studies, and I’d get a good line on my resumé.

Within hours of beginning my new job, I learned that my father’s friend was a subcontractor for the military. The components I’d be making would be used in military vehicles. After that first day of work, I had many conflicting thoughts. I’m firmly against the United States’ overuse of military might in the world theater. I’m a big critic of our mismanaged involvement in Iraq. I’m appalled by the number of lives that have been lost in the Middle East, many of them young Americans like myself. I want our troops to have the best equipment they can, but I also believe that our possession of the best military equipment makes us more likely to go to war. Military technology continues to grow more lethal, and technological developments create a never-ending cycle of military escalation.

Did I want to be part of this cycle? To this day I still weigh the ethical dilemma of my summer work. Were I to not do the job, the vehicle components would still be produced. Also, the parts I was making were for support vehicles, not assault weaponry. It’s even possible that my work would be saving lives, not endangering them. On the other hand, nuclear bombs and missile guidance systems were all created by scientists and engineers with good intentions. I’m convinced that even the most innocent involvement in the science of war makes one complicit in war itself.

I considered quitting the job. Were I true to my ideals, I really should have walked away and spent the summer mowing lawns or bagging groceries. My parents argued in favor of the machinist job. They made valid points about the value of the experience and the ways that it would lead to bigger opportunities in the future.

In the end I kept the job, partly from my parents’ advice and partly from my own desire to be doing real engineering work. Looking back, I think my decision was one of convenience and cowardice. I didn’t want to insult my father’s friend. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents. I didn’t want to let a professional opportunity slip away. I didn’t want to mow lawns.

But what does my decision say about the future? My summer job made me recognize that the military is a big employer of engineers, whether directly or indirectly. Undoubtedly I’ll be confronting similar yet more serious ethical decisions in the future. What if my first job offer has a stunning salary and interesting engineering challenges, but the employer is a defense contractor like Lockheed or Raytheon? Will I turn down the job, or will I once again compromise my ideals? I may even face such conflicts during college. Many engineering professors work under military grants, so my college research and internships could get entangled in messy ethical dilemmas.

I’m hoping I’ll make a better decision the next time my ideals are challenged. If nothing else, my summer job has made me more aware of the types of information I want to collect before I accept a job and arrive at my first day of work. What I learned about myself during my summer work wasn’t exactly flattering. Indeed, it makes me realize that I need college so that I can develop not just my engineering skills, but also my ethical reasoning and leadership skills. I like to think that in the future I’ll use my engineering skills to better the world and tackle noble causes like climate change and sustainability. My bad decision this past summer has inspired me to look ahead and find ways to make my ideals and my love of engineering work together.

Critique –

Like all college admissions essays, however, essays for Common Application option #1 must accomplish a specific task: they must be written clearly and tightly, and they must provide evidence that the writer has the intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and the strength of character necessary to be a contributing and successful member of the campus community.

The Title - Drew's title is rather straight-forward, but it is also quite effective. We immediately want to know why Drew should have quit this job. We also want to know why he didn't quit the job. Also, the title captures a key element of Drew's essay -- Drew is not writing about a great success he had, but a personal failure. His approach carries with it a little risk, but it is also a refreshing change from all the essays about how great the writer is.

The Topic - Most applicants think they have to make themselves look super-human or infallible in their essays. The admissions folks read scores of essays on "significant events" in which the writer describes a winning touchdown, a brilliant moment of leadership, a perfectly executed solo, or the happiness brought to the less-fortunate by an act of charity.

Drew does not go down this predictable road. At the heart of Drew's essay is a failure -- he acted in a way that did not live up to his personal ideals. He chose convenience and self-advancement over his values, and he emerges from his ethical dilemma thinking he did the wrong thing.

One could argue that Drew's approach to the essay is foolish. Does a top college really want to admit a student who so easily compromises his values?

But let's think of the issue differently. Does a college want to admit all those students whose essays present them as braggarts and egoists? Drew's essay has a pleasing level of self awareness and self criticism. We all make mistakes, and Drew owns up to his. He is disturbed by his decision, and his essay explores his inner conflicts. Drew is not perfect -- none of us are -- and he is refreshingly up front about this fact. Drew has room to grow and he knows it.

Also, Drew's essay isn't just about his faulty decision. It also presents his strengths -- he is passionate about mechanical engineering and has been for most of his life. The essay succeeds in showing off his strengths at the very time it examines his weaknesses.

Essay option #1 often leads to a bunch of predictable and conventional essays, but Drew's will stand out from the rest of the pile.

The Tone - Drew is a fairly serious and introspective guy, so we don't find much humor in his essay. At the same time, the writing isn't too heavy. The opening description of Drew's closet and the repeated mention of mowing lawns add a little lightness to the writing.

Most importantly, the essay manages to convey a level of humility that is refreshing. Drew comes across as a decent person, someone who we'd like to get to know better.

The Writing - Drew's essay has been carefully edited and revised. It contains no glaring problems with grammar and style. The language is tight and the details are well chosen. The prose is tight with a good variety of sentence structure. Immediately Drew's essay tells the admissions folks that he is in control of his writing and ready for the challenges of college-level work.

The length of the essay is also good. Drew's piece comes in around 730 words. The admissions officers have thousands of essays to process, so we want to keep the essay short. Drew's response gets the job done effectively without rambling on. The admissions folks are unlikely to lose interest. Drew's keeps it short and sweet.

Final Thoughts - As you write your essay, you should think about the impression you leave your reader with. Drew's does an excellent job on this front. Here's a student who already has great mechanical ability and a love for engineering. He is humble and reflective. He is willing to take risks, and even risks critiquing the source of funding for some college professors. We leave the essay understanding Drew's values, his doubts and his passions.

5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on a Significant Experience

Option 1 asks: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

1. "Evaluate" -- Make Sure Your Response is Analytical

Read the prompt for option #1 carefully -- you need to "evaluate" an experience, achievement, risk or dilemma. Evaluation requires you to think critically and analytically about your topic. The admissions folks are not asking you to "describe" or "summarize" an experience (although you'll need to do this a little). The heart of your essay needs to be a thoughtful discussion of how the experience affected you. Examine how the experience made you grow and change as a person.

2. A "Significant" Experience Can Be Small

Many students shy away from personal essay option 1 because of the word "significant." Many students feel that they are just 18 years old and nothing "significant" has ever happened to them. This isn't true. If you're 18 years old, even if your life has been smooth and comfortable, you've had significant experiences. Think about the first time you challenged authority, the first time you disappointed your parents or the first time you pushed yourself to do something outside of your comfort zone. A significant risk can be choosing to study drawing; it doesn't have to be about rappelling into an icy chasm to rescue a baby polar bear.

3. Don't Brag About an "Achievement"

The admissions team gets a lot of essays from students about the winning goal, the record-breaking run, the brilliant job in the school play, the stunning violin solo or the amazing job they did as team captain. These topics are fine for essay option 1, but you want to be very careful to avoid sounding like a braggart or egoist. The tone of such essays is critical. An essay that says "the team never could have won without me" is going to rub your reader the wrong way. A college doesn't want a community of self-consumed egoists. The best essays have a generosity of spirit and an appreciation of community and team effort.

4. An "Ethical Dilemma" Doesn't Need to be Newsworthy

Think broadly about what can be defined as an "ethical dilemma." This topic doesn't need to be about whether or not to support war, abortion or capital punishment. In fact, the huge topics that dominate national debate will often miss the point of the essay question -- the "impact on you." The most difficult ethical dilemmas facing high school students are often about high school. Should you turn in a friend who cheated? Is loyalty to your friends more important than honesty? Should you risk your own comfort or reputation to do what you think is right? Tackling these personal dilemmas in your essay will give the admissions folks a good sense of who you are, and you will be addressing issues that are central to being a good campus citizen.

5. Reveal Your Character

Always keep in mind why colleges require admissions essays. Sure, they want to see that you can write, but the essay isn't always the best tool for that (it's obviously easy to get professional help with grammar and mechanics). The main purpose of the essay is so that the school can learn more about you. It's the only place on the application where you can really demonstrate your character, your personality, your sense of humor and your values. The admissions folks want to find evidence that you will be a contributing member of the campus community. They want to see evidence of a team spirit, humility, self-awareness and introspection. Essay option #1 works well for these goals if you thoughtfully explore the "impact on you."

Option #2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Be careful to keep the "importance to you" at the heart of your essay. It's easy to get off track with this essay topic and start ranting about global warming, Darfur, or abortion. The admissions folks want to discover your character, passions and abilities in the essay; they want more than a political lecture.

The Allegany County Youth Board

I am not entirely sure how I ended up on the Allegany County Youth Board. I know my parents' friend recruited my mom after an older Board member retired, and he told her to ask me if I had any interest in becoming a youth member as there was no one yet to represent our district. I said sure, but wished I hadn't after the first meeting, during which a bunch of people my parents' age and older sat around discussing 'allocations' and 'subsidies.' "Nothing got done," I complained to my mom afterwards. I had thought politics was exciting; I had thought that there would be fiery debate, patriotic vehemence. I was disappointed, and I didn't want to go back.

I did go back, however. At first it was my mom's nagging that made me go. The more I went, though, the more I understood what people were saying and the more interesting it all was. I began to get a sense of how things worked on a board. I learned when to talk and when not to, and even occasionally added some input of my own. Soon it was I who nagged my mom to attend.

It was in one of our recent meetings that I got a taste of the heated discussions of my initial preconception. A Christian-based organization was requesting a grant to build a skate park and the head of the project was due to present her proposal. Although the Youth Board is a government entity and funded by taxpayer money, it is not unusual for funds to be allotted to religious groups, as long as it is clear that the grant will be used for non-religious purposes. For instance, the organization Youth for Christ receives public money each year for their recreation programs aimed at getting kids off the streets and providing alternatives to delinquent behavior. These projects, including a skate park like the one in question, are separate from the group's religious objectives and programs.

The woman who presented to us was in her thirties or forties and was, a board member told us, "a person of few words." From what she did say it was clear that she was poorly educated, that she was steady in her convictions and sincere in her desire to help, and that she was utterly naive about how to get the money she wanted for her program. It was this naivety, perhaps, that gave painful honesty to her words. We questioned her on whether kids of any faith would be allowed to skate there. They would, but they would be encouraged to "find God." Would there be any religious lessons taught? The lessons were separate; they didn't have to stay for them. They would be at the same place and at the same time, though. Would there be religious pamphlets or posters? Yes. What if a child didn't want to convert? Would they be made to? No, that would be left up to God.

After she left a heated debate ensued. On one side were my parents' friend, my mom, and me; on the other side were everyone else. It seemed clear that this proposition overstepped the line--the director had stated explicitly that it was a ministry. If the proposal were carried out, however, the skate park would be a great asset to her town, and the truth is that pretty much all of Allegany County is Protestant anyway. In all likelihood the skate park/ministry would only benefit the community, and in a town of under 2000 people with nearly 15% of them below the poverty line, they need all they can get.

I am no Machiavelli. The ends do not always justify the means. What we seemed to be looking at was the question of whether to endorse a program that promoted a religion. On principle I could not agree with this. Even if in this case the result could be positive, it violated the guarantee of separation of church and state. I believe that any infringement of this, no matter how trivial, undermines the government’s claim to neutrality. Furthermore, we needed to be aware not only of the situation at hand but also of the precedent set for future situations.

But then the decision that seemed so clear to me became hazier. There was more than a month between the presentation and the vote on whether to fund the project. I kept thinking of my experience of the previous summer, working as a counselor at Camp New Horizons. The camp serves kids in Cattaraugus County who have emotional or behavioral problems, often due to poverty, and it is funded by the state. One of the first things I noticed when I got there was the prayer before each meal. This seemed inappropriate to me, since it is a publicly funded camp. I asked returning counselors if the kids were required to say the grace. They gave me confused looks. I explained that I, for instance, am an atheist and would feel uncomfortable saying grace. They wanted to know why it mattered to me if I didn't believe in God. "I don't lack belief in God," I tried to tell them. "I believe in a lack of God." "Wait until the kids get here," they said. "It'll make sense."

After three weeks with those kids, it sure did make sense. Each camper had a story, a strung-out newspaper clipping of tragedy. The only routines they had created for themselves were tantrums, violence, and running away. One girl, for example, would throw a fit between four thirty and five o' clock every day without fail. She would get angry about some minor frustration, sulk for a while, then work herself into such a frenzy that she would have to be restrained. She needed stability in her life, and these outbursts provided routine. Saying grace before meals became part of the pattern of life at camp, and the campers loved it just for that.

They had to make it from one day to the next, and it wasn't going to be separation of church and state that saved their lives. What of it if there was a picture of Jesus painted on the wall of their skate park? They needed routine, focus, and gentle transitions. The simple prayer gave them these. It wasn't out to convert kids or go against their upbringing. By the end of camp, I was the only one converted - converted to the notion of practicality over principle.

And yet, when it came time for the vote, I voted against the proposal. In a way it was a cop out, since I knew that the skate park would win even with my vote against it, which it did, by a narrow margin. I wanted the skate park to be built, but I was concerned about the precedent of funding religious projects. Thankfully, I was able to vote on principle without sacrificing the community benefit. I am still not sure what I believe is right in this case, but at this point in my life I like being unsure. Uncertainty leaves room for growth, change, and learning. I like that.

The Topic - Don't be misled by Sophie's focus on a local and rural issue. At the heart of the essay is a discussion of big questions: separation of church and state, conflicts between personal convictions and the good of the community, and the gray areas that define all politics.

Sophie has taken some risks in choosing this topic. Her declared atheism might alienate some readers. From her opening line ("I am not entirely sure") she presents herself as someone who does not have all the answers. Indeed, Sophie is not the hero of this story. She's not even convinced that she made the right decision, and her vote did not affect the outcome of the situation.

The Tone - These risks are what make the essay effective. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer at a liberal arts college. What kind of student do you want as part of your campus community? One with all the answers, who knows everything, never makes wrong decisions and seems to have nothing to learn?

Clearly not. Sophie presents herself as someone who is continually learning, rethinking her convictions and embracing her uncertainty. It's important to note that Sophie does have strong convictions, but she is open-minded enough to challenge them. The essay shows Sophie to be an engaged, thoughtful and questioning community member. She takes on challenges, sticks with her convictions, yet she does so with pleasing open-mindedness and humility. In short, she demonstrates the qualities that are a great match for a small liberal arts college.

The Writing - As you read Sophie's essay, one problem probably jumped out when you reached the second page: it's too long. Somewhere in the 500 to 900 word range should be the target for an admission essay. Sophie's essay is up around 1,200 words. This is a real problem. Admissions folks have thousands of essays to read, so a 1,200-word piece isn't going to be a welcome sight. What could Sophie have cut? Perhaps the side-story of Camp New Horizons needs to go. Perhaps a sentence could be cut here and there, especially in the first half of the essay.

I do think the opening could use a bit more work. The second sentence is a little long and clumsy, and that opening paragraph needs to really grab the reader.

That said, the writing itself is mostly excellent. The essay is largely free of grammatical or typographical errors. The prose is clear and fluid. Sophie does a nice job shifting between short, punchy sentences ("I am no Machiavelli") and longer, more complex ones. The essay, despite its length, holds the reader's attention.

Final Thoughts - I like Sophie's essay because the focus is local. Many college applicants worry that they have nothing to say, that nothing significant has happened to them. Sophie shows us that one need not have climbed Mount Everest, experienced great personal tragedy or found a cure for cancer to write an effective essay.

Sophie grapples with tough issues and shows herself to be eager to learn. She also demonstrates strong writing skills. She successfully presents herself as a good match for a competitive liberal arts college.

5 Tips for Option 2:

Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

1. Be Sure to "Discuss"

Be sure to read the question carefully. The common application is not asking you to "describe" or "summarize" an issue. So, if the bulk of your essay is describing the terrible conditions in Darfur, you are not answering the question. To "discuss" something you need to think critically and write analytically.

2. Focusing Close to Home is Often Better

The admissions office gets lots of essays on big, newsworthy issues like the war in Iraq, the fight against terror and U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. In truth, however, these giant and complex issues often don't impact our immediate lives as much as more local and personal issues. Since colleges want to get to know you through your essay, be sure to focus on an issue that will actually teach them something about you.

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