Breaking Down the Prompt
The fifth prompt for the Common App Essay of the 2016-17 admissions cycle:
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
What does this mean? Basically, the prompt asks you to tell a coming of age story. In other words, you must reflect on a specific accomplishment or event within a group you belong to — your culture, community, or family — and show how you grew, both as a member of the group, but, more importantly, how this was a transition for you as an individual.
What is the Purpose of this Prompt?
In order to better approach your answer to this prompt, you should first consider why this question would be asked on a college application. For one, each college is a group, just like any culture, community, or family. There are rules and standards that each member agrees to that allow the group to function efficiently.In considering your application, admissions officers are trying to imagine you in their community — how and where you would find a place in and contribute to their community, how their group would fit and welcome you, and how you would make their community better.
In your response to this prompt, they want to see that you have an understanding of what makes a community and that you are aware of your place in it. This is your chance to show that you are aware of your role in both your own life and in others’.
Additionally, colleges ask this question because they want to see personal growth. While your transcript, honors, and list of extracurricular activities can show at face value that you have grown in academic and extracurricular pursuits, colleges want to see this embodied in all aspects of your life — even the ones that do not get awarded or recorded on paper. In this prompt, you can illustrate how you have grown as a person, not just as a student, during the formative period of high school.
Finally, colleges want to hear you tell a story about yourself. They want to know what’s important to you and how you define yourself in your own terms. They will read recommenders’ letters about you, but, ultimately, the person who will step onto their campus will be you. For that reason, they want to see how you carry yourself. They want to watch you be creative and thoughtful because this will reflect what you bring to their school.
For thousands of years, stories have been very important to humankind and how humans perceive each other. This is your chance to tell a piece of your own story. Because you are given an option of where to focus your essay — between community, culture, or family – you need to make a choice!
Below you will find an examination of each option to help you choose the one that best suits you. When you have decided upon a community, culture, or family to write about, you will then be better able to identify a transition from childhood to adulthood to write about, along with deciding upon a message and streamlining your ideas.
If you immediately have an idea about a community you belong to, write down your initial thoughts, and do not worry about having streamlined ideas just yet. If you do not have any ideas right away, or if you’re struggling to come up with more than a couple ideas, start considering your definition of a group or community.
Begin with the question of what makes and what breaks a group. From there, examine which groups in your life you belong to. Move through different types of groups. Perhaps you are a part of your school choir or a sports team — clearly defined, organized groups. Did you have a coming-of-age transition in one of these groups? Along with thinking about leadership roles you may have had in these groups, consider how day-to-day interactions might have changed to reflect a transition.
Then, consider other identifiers that tie you to groups — maybe you love romance novels or have curly hair. How do these identities lead to the creation of groups and communities? How can you transition from child to adult within them?
Take, for example, height. If you are especially short, you might have spent your whole life wishing to be taller. But, maybe there was a moment when another short person (someone you knew or even a stranger) showed you how to embrace your height. How did that change you? How did that moment change how you felt about yourself and your place in the community? Be sure to reflect on this moment transitorily for you as an individual and for you as part of a community.
Another group to consider your place in is your culture. When you begin to write about your culture, the best place to start is often with a free write to get ideas flowing without the structure of the college essay in mind. You may realize that something that seemed unfit for a college essay could actually be your best idea.
Begin by asking yourself what defines your culture. Is it the food you eat? The music you listen to? The clothing you wear? How does your culture smell? Sound? Feel? What are your traditions? When someone mentions your culture what is the first thing that comes to mind? The first image you see? The first feeling? Are you overwhelmed or underwhelmed by your culture? Start by exploring what your culture is.
What you might think is totally commonplace, natural, and understood by everyone may actually be more unique than you realize.
Additionally, look to older people in your culture and ask them both about their experiences with your culture in general, but also about their childhood-to-adulthood transitions within the culture. Like a journalist, observe! You are gathering information for your story. It may also help you to read authors from within your culture who have discussed this coming-of-age transition.
Often the best way to know what you do and do not want to write about is to read other authors on a subject, and identify what resonates with you and what you disagree on. If you do not have a lot of time to read, even a few short stories might help. After all, your essay has a limit of 650 words and noticing how short story authors craft their words and plots to fit smaller spaces but still carry big meaning can only help you.
Other forms of art within your culture such as music, poetry, movies, and visual arts, may help you generate ideas as well. What do they identify with? What sticks out to them? What do they love about your culture? What about it do they struggle with? How does this compare to your relationship with your culture?
It also may help to read authors and observe artists from other cultures discuss the transition from childhood to adulthood, as the differences and similarities they identify in transitioning within cultures will help you further consider what is important to include in your essay. Everybody must grow up some day — how does this process change within cultures? How does it stay the same? What will this mean for your essay?
The third type of group you can write about experiencing a childhood-to-adulthood transition is families. With families, you should start with the question of what makes a family. Specifically, what makes your family? Or, how do you define your family? Is it the people you live with, or all of your relatives and anyone who could be remotely tied to you? Does biology matter? Do you choose your family or does your family choose you? Is there any choice?
Remember that, while we often see families as determined by blood ties, there are other types of families, too. What makes a family different from a community or culture? Could a family also be a community or culture?
As with writing about a culture, when writing about your family, it may help to read the work of other authors writing about coming of age experiences, especially under the lens of family. What marked their transition from childhood to adulthood in that context? Was it losing a member of the family? Or perhaps gaining a new one? Was it moving as a family? How did they recognize this transition?
It is also worth asking your own family members if they have observed any such transition for you. Or, if the transition was marked and announced (maybe your parents told you it was time for you to make your own money, or that you had to start taking care of your younger siblings), why did they decide upon that age? Had they planned it, or did they notice something in you that made them think you were ready?
While you may not feel comfortable discussing your essay plans with family members, asking them what they have noticed can provide important insight from someone who is close to you (whether just in proximity or also in feeling) and who has seen you change over more time than a teacher could.
When writing about your family, be aware of family dynamics and relationships that you know about and comprehend, but remember that admissions officers might not understand. Imagine yourself from the perspective of an admissions officer reading hundreds of essays — they need more guidance than someone who knows you and your family.
But, be careful not to spend the whole time explaining the dynamics of your family tree. If you need to explain a complicated relation, try writing it out several different times until you feel it is as clear and concise as possible but still supports your essay. Strike a balance between illustrating your story and allowing room for reflection.
Next Step: The Transition from Childhood to Adulthood
In writing for the fifth prompt, it may also help you to consider the boundaries of childhood and adulthood. Because leaving for college marks, for many, the first real departure from home, parents, and the familiar, it is often tied up in understandings of childhood and adulthood, as we often associate children with their parents, while adults stand alone.
How does the transition you have already experienced help you understand what college will mean for you? Show that you are thinking about how college will fit into your life — how it will be different from what you have known, but also how (because of the coming of age transition that you experienced) you are ready to handle this new, more independent experience.
Additionally, when you write your essay, make clear how you knew this transition occurred. While it may have been clear to you that a certain event or accomplishment marked a transition to adulthood in your community, culture, or family, it is not necessarily clear to the reader. Even if it is, it is important to expand and reflect upon what those seemingly-obvious events and signals stand for and why they are recognized as such. Show colleges that you reflect on your surroundings and your life — that you are ready for the next level of thinking.
Pick a Specific Moment or Accomplishment
When you have picked what type of group you are going to write about and identify your coming-of-age transition, pick a specific moment or accomplishment to write about. It should be easily identified and distinct. That is, you should be able to summarize it in one or two sentences.
Starting with a single moment or accomplishment will allow you to move outwards, from specific moment to expanding on your culture, community, or family, to a reflection that answers the prompt. While you do not have to follow this order exactly, these are the three main components your essay will need (see the section “Streamlining Your Ideas” below) and starting with a small moment or detail will provide a lens with which to view the whole essay.
How Does this Transition Prepare You for College?
Once you have a moment picked, answer how this transition prepares you for college. Because your ultimate goal is to get into college and because the admissions officers are ultimately trying to decide whether or not you will fit at their college, your essay should aim to illustrate how this transition prepared you for college, along with adulthood.
It is okay if your essay has elements that are sad. The reality is that transitions and change are often painful. Acknowledging this is reasonable and can show an honest approach to the prompt. But, be sure your essay is not overwhelmed by sadness, especially not self-pity. Make sure to end with an upbeat tone so that readers can see how you have learned and grown from this experience. Try to emphasize how this change, however bittersweet, equipped you to move forward onto the next big transition in your life: college.
Streamlining Your Ideas
When you have finished brainstorming, you should have a good idea of what you want your essay to be about. While it is up to you how you order and structure your essay, be sure you have intention behind all of the choices you make in your writing.
For some, it may be helpful to write an outline, whether brief or detailed, beforehand to imagine the structure. For others, it may be easier to write the essay and then go back through to make sure the prompt is answered thoroughly and clearly.No matter how your process flows, your essay should end up covering three things:
- A single moment or accomplishment that marked your transition or one of your transitions from child to adult, situated within your culture, community, or family.
- Your culture, community, or family and why and how that contributes to your identity as a child and adult.
- A reflection on the importance of this transition and a look toward your future in college.
If you structure your essay well and cover these three key elements, you should have answered the prompt thoroughly and clearly, one of the main objectives in writing a personal statement. From there, you can work to embellish with style, theme, and word choice. With hard work, you will have crafted a strong and well-written college essay!
Style, Theme, and Word Choice
Always be sure to define any words or traditions that your reader might not know, and never assume your reader knows what you are talking about. Stylistically, using words from another language adds a deeper level to your essay. It is interesting to the ear, breaking up the familiar flow of English, and shows special knowledge on your part.
Be careful not to use too many foreign words — you do not want to appear to be showing off or distracting from your story, and you do not want to take up too much space defining terms. If there are many foreign words you would like to use, try to narrow down your list to a few distinct-sounding words that can be easily and clearly defined.
Additionally, be careful when toeing the line between reflective essay and creative writing. While you want to experiment with style and different storylines, you should keep in mind that you are writing to admissions officers and that your goal is to show how you are the best applicant for a college education. Admissions officers read hundreds of essays each day, and do not have time to interpret the meaning of your essay if it is not immediately clear.
When you are finished with your first draft, go back through and look to see that you have made some sort of point in favor of yourself. While it does not have to be stated explicitly, there should at least be an implicit thesis. Striking a balance between storytelling and reflection is critical.
Finally, use metaphors carefully. It is easy to get lost in a metaphor and use it as a crutch for your points. Before you use a metaphor, ask yourself, “Does this make sense?” and, “Will this provide clarity for my reader?” If you are planning to use an extended metaphor throughout the essay, consider, “Has this been done before?” If so, how can you do it better? How can you shine light on a seemingly cliché subject and bring new life to it for the admissions officers. Through your writing choices, show that you are a unique candidate.
Do’s and Don’ts
Do make sure that your essay is ultimately celebrating you. While your culture, community, or family are important parts of the story you’re telling, your essay should be designed to place your personality, experiences, and accomplishments in the context of that environment. It might help to go through with two different colored highlighters and highlight times you talked about yourself versus times you talked about others.
Make sure the essay focuses on you, as you are the actual applicant they are considering. Do not sell yourself short just because there is no official stamp or certificate to accompany your accomplishments in your transition to adulthood. Remember that traditional definitions of experience are not the only thing colleges are looking for. For example, while you might not be classically trained in music, you may play some piano and write songs with your friends, or you may be in charge of leading songs around the campfire at summer camp.
Well-written essays on such topics can be just as effective as the story of the classically trained pianist. Do relax: you don’t have to answer every question posed in this post. These questions are designed to help get you thinking about the message you want to send and how you are going to approach the prompt, but do not stress if you cannot answer them all in your essay. In fact, you probably cannot.
Instead, focus on including only what is most important. And, finally, do edit your essays. Editing is an essential part of the writing process and college essays can be tricky because they are unlike most of the writing typically taught in high school. For more help with mastering the style of the college essay, be sure to look into CollegeVine essay editing services, which offer the thorough and informative feedback needed to craft words into strong writing.
To help youth applying to college navigate the college essay in order to submit their best work with their college application.
- To understand the importance of a college essay.
- To identify the first steps to starting an essay.
- To identify key ingredients of a good college essay.
- To analyze if disclosing your disability is a good personal choice for you.
One hurdle that you must surmount when planning to go to college is the application process. It can be laborious, time intensive, confusing, and overwhelming. The college essay can feel like the worst part of the application process. Whether writing comes easy or is a struggle for you, writing an essay can be a significant challenge and it can feel like your whole application is riding on that one essay. This module can help you to sort through what you need to do to write the best essay you can write.
- What is the college essay or personal statement?
- How important is a college essay?
- What are typical essay topics?
- Should I write about my disability?
- How do I get started on my college essay?
- What makes a good college entrance essay?
What is the college essay or personal statement?
Nearly all colleges and universities require students to write an essay to supplement their application to attend the institution. Applicants are usually given an essay prompt and a word limit within which to express themselves. The essays usually cover topics relating to the student’s experiences and opinions. The goal of the essay is to provide admission professionals an opportunity to see you, beyond your GPA and test scores, as an individual person with your own unique experiences.
How important is a college essay?
The importance of college essays has increased in the past few years. Twenty-six percent of college admission offices consider the college entrance exam is of “considerable importance” in the admission process (Gabriel, 2011). Some colleges weigh essays higher than other parts of the application. However, the essay is not the most important part of your application when you are applying for college. Your overall Grade Point Average (GPA), college preparation, test results, and the strength of the high school curriculum all outweigh the essay (Gabriel, 2011). However, teacher recommendations and extracurricular activities rank below the college essay (Gabriel, 2011). Therefore, it is extremely important to submit a well-written college entrance essay.
What are typical essay topics?
Essay topics will vary from university to university. However, the Common College Application just released new essay prompts for 2013-2014 school year. The Common College Application is a standardized application that allows students to apply to many colleges at one time (The Common Application, 2013). The common application is accepted by over 400 colleges, including many state universities and Ivy League schools (The Common Application, 2013). These essay prompts vary from year to year. However, the overall theme is similar. The essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year are:
- 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.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- 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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family (Abrams, 2013)
A student's essay is usually expected to be between 250-650 words or 1-2 pages. This length will be fairly consistent across institutes of higher education whether you are using the Common Application or an individual schools application. You can find some examples of good answers to these essays in the resource section of this module. Reading essay examples can be helpful in guiding you to writing your own good essay. However, make sure that the essay is completely original. Never copy an essay from the internet or have someone else write it for you. The risks are greater than any benefit you might get by plagiarizing an essay. Do not assume that if someone else writes the essay for you that it will produce a high quality essay.
Should I write about my disability?
There is no definitive answer to disclosing your disability in your college essay. It is a personal decision that will depend on your own disability and how it has affected your life. There is no requirement to disclose your disability anywhere in the college application. In fact, usually the essay is the only way you would be able to disclose your disability. This is a personal decision for you to make on your own. It might help the admissions team to understand you holistically or explain a gap in performance. You may decide that it will not benefit you in anyway to disclose before you are accepted to the university or college. You should discuss the pros and cons of disclosing your disability with your family, friends, and school counselors to decide the right decision for you.
If you do decide to disclose your disability here are some items to keep in mind:
- Focus on Your Strengths: Discuss how your disability has made you the person you are today. Emphasize how it has made you stronger, think outside the box, or overcome adversity. Do not focus on the things you cannot do or highlight your weaknesses. Acceptance into college is dependent on your strengths and academic abilities. Focus on your strengths for your college essay.
- Keep it Simple: Remember, your disability is part of who you are but not all of who you are. Do not fall into the trap of describing your disability in great detail. Do not write a textbook explanation of your disability. Disclosing your disability may be important, but explaining every aspect of it and how it affects your life might be more than what the college admissions expect from you. You could describe a situation from your unique point of view (an inside out approach), mention it in passing, or tell a specific story about a situation in which your disability affected the outcome. Your goal in a college application is to stand out. Use your uniqueness to your advantage, not as a hindrance.
If you choose not to disclose your disability in your essay or college application, remember, you may still disclose at any point after you are accepted into the school. You will need to do this to receive any of the accommodations and support services that you might need to be successful.
How do I get started on my college essay?
Getting started can be the hardest part of writing. There is information to share and college admissions officers like to read a good essay. However, once you get started, writing becomes easier. Follow these simple tips to get a strong start on your essay.
- Pick an Interesting Topic: You may not always have a choice of your essay topic. However, you will always have a choice on exactly what you write about within the topic guidelines. Write about what matters to you. Your passion about the topic will show through your writing and make your essay stronger. Your motivation to write will become stronger if you are excited about the topic.
- Start Early: Don’t procrastinate! Whether writing is a strength of yours or a struggle, it is imperative that you start early on the process of writing your essay. Writing a good essay can take a long time and require several drafts. No one ever gets a piece of writing perfect on his or her first draft. You will need to be patient with yourself and give yourself plenty of time to take breaks, ask advice, and edit your essay.
- Pre-Plan your Essay: Using an outline, spider organizer, a concept map, free writing, any other graphic organizer, and/or pre-writing technique that works for you will help you to focus your ideas. You may want to try outlining your essay in multiple formats or the same format multiple times. You may do pre-writing for several different answers to a topic and then pick the best one to write the actual essay. You might want to plan to do one pre-writing essay, wait a few days, and then do another pre-writing exercise. As mentioned in step 2, writing a college essay takes time, but with enough pre-planning the actual essay writing will be easier.
- Research the College: Good writers always keep their audience in mind and a college essay is no exception. Colleges and universities have their own personalities and priorities. You should find out more about the college or university of your interest and write an essay specific to that audience.
What makes a good college entrance essay?
Introduce the section before jumping in bulleted sections.
- Staying on Topic: When writing an essay, it is important for you to answer the prompt completely and stay on topic for the duration. Avoid straying from the topic and getting lost in your paper. It can be easy to add extraneous information into your essay, especially when you are writing about yourself. Writing multiple drafts can help you to cut down on extra information. Even if a phrase or paragraph is extremely well written, it can hurt your overall essay if it is off topic. Remember, you only have 200-600 words. Make every word count!
- Creativity: Standing out with your college essay is important. College admission counselors read hundreds and thousands of essays every year. You should find a way to make yours stand out. You are a unique individual. Identify the parts of you that set you apart from others and utilize them to write a unique essay. If you are a strong writer, you might also be able to present your topic in a unique and interesting way. You can find some examples of creative essays in the resource section of this module. Again, remember it is important not to plagiarize the ideas of others, but they may help you to get started in writing your essay.
- Honesty: Be true to yourself. Trust that you are interesting and have powerful stories to tell. Do not make things up or use things that have happened to other people. A strongly written essay about a fight you had with your parent and how you solved the problem will be much better than a made-up story. All colleges take integrity and honesty very seriously. Any uncovered dishonesty would have serious consequences on your future. Anyway, writing about something due to of personal experience will be much easier than writing about something you have had to make-up.
- Asking for help: Your essay may be your own ideas, words, and writing. However, you do not have to do it alone. Ask people to read your drafts to provide you corrections and advice on your essay. Your teachers, family, friends, school counselors, and community members are all people you might ask to help you create your essay. There are several tutoring services available across the nation; with a little research you should be able to locate an agency near you that may be able to assist you with writing. You should also feel free to use any assistive technology that you are using in school to help write your essay.
- Proofreading and Editing: It would be tragic to turn in an essay that includes all of the above but is littered with misspellings and grammatical errors. Use the proofreading skills that you have developed to carefully read your drafts. Try reading it out loud to yourself or have someone else read it. Make sure you are reading it carefully and specifically for grammar and spelling. Watch that you are using the same tense and point of view throughout your essay. Also, try and avoid using the passive voice. Always read your essay over for grammatical and spelling errors one last time before you submit your application.
REVIEW OF TOPICS:
In this module, we have discussed how best to write a college essay in order to put your best first forward. We discussed the following topics:
- College essays, though not the most important thing, are very important in the application process.
- Disclosing your disability is a personal choice. You should discuss this decision with adults that you trust.
- Getting started can be the most difficult part of writing an essay, to get started on the path to success you should write about something you care about, start early, use prewriting strategies and research the college.
- In order to write a good essay you should be sure to stay on topic, be creative, be honest, ask for help, and edit your work.
ASSESSMENT AND EVALUATION:
Now that you know a little about college essays follow a couple steps to get you started.
- Generate a list of adults that can help you with the writing and application process.
- Begin thinking about answers to the common application questions and review the pre-writing techniques.
- Make a list of the keys to a good college essay, then list why they are important.
- Talk to at least one adult about disclosing your disability in your college essay.
College essays can seem overwhelming, but you are sharing who you are as an individual. Do not get overwhelmed and stressed by the essay. Use this module as an opportunity to develop your essay step by step. Always ask for help and stay focused on your topic. Remember that the college application is important, but not as important as your grades. Relax and enjoy writing your essay.
Rose Bottle works as a high school English teacher at a school for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities. She graduated from The George Washington University with a Master’s Degree in Secondary Special Education and Transition Services in 2013.