You and the Common Application Essay (Part 5)

If you’ve been following along with my recent series of blog postings that examine the new essay prompts for the 2013-2014 Common Application, then you’re well aware that we have now reached the fifth and final topic about which you can write your application essay.  In short, if you haven’t found a topic to fit your writing needs yet, this one may well be your last hope.

Now, I caution you readers that, of the five prompts offered by the Common Application this year, this one presents the most opportunities for you to inadvertently get off-topic or – worse yet – come off as either too heroic (bragging) or too maudlin (melodramatic).  It’s written in a tricky form with a lot of traps for you to fall into along the way.  Furthermore, it requires you to weigh each and every word with the utmost care.

Prompt #5 for 2013-2014:  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Now, before you get too excited and spin out 650 words about your first blue ribbon or delve into a detailed description of your horse’s life-saving colic surgery, stop for a moment and think about what – specifically – this question is asking.  First and foremost, it rather boldly assumes that you have fully made the transition to adulthood (which my teachers always told me college itself was for) and secondly, it assumes that you were able to make that transition based on one transformative experience and one alone.

Thus, I recommend taking the idea of adulthood out of the prompt before you even begin.  Then, assuming you can think of a time in your life when you were transformed (which – for better or worse – horses are good at introducing into our lives), it’s crucial that you next take a moment to examine fully the parameters that your essay must meet.  You must outline what you experienced and then discuss how the event changed you and how you are different today than you were before.  (Whether you truly feel that you have entered adulthood at this point is actually moot; it’s the transition itself that is most important.)

The question of how is where the first trap appears for you as a writer, though.  But because this particular prompt targets such a personal and important moment in your young life – more so than with the other prompts – it has the potential to reveal too much if you’re not careful.  Thus, determining both what the accomplishment or event will be and exactly how much personal information you’ll divulge to your reader before you sit down to write your first draft is of vital importance.

More specifically, I caution you to avoid choosing an event that was too traumatic or emotional and will turn into an essay that – while it may be therapeutic for you to write – ends up being a tearjerker for the admission staff and detracts from your intended purpose.  Thus, I caution you strongly not to write about horses or people who died.  It isn’t that losing someone important to you isn’t a significant and life-changing part of your growth, but in your admission essay, writing about such a loss usually makes the focus of the essay itself on the loss and not on you.

What is a good topic for this type of essay then?

As I previously mentioned, maybe there was a time in your life when you outgrew your first pony and had to sell him to another girl in order to have a horse that was the right size and who could help you to improve your riding skills at the next level.  That type of event can be completely transformative and has the power to influence how you have approached your riding – and even your life! – since that day but it allows you to avoid the sort of melodrama that tends to cling to stories where one of the characters dies.

Or perhaps you were able to convince your parents to purchase your first horse and all they could afford was an off-the-track Thoroughbred who had run away with everyone who owned him previously.  You somehow managed to turn him into a good riding horse and finally won a blue ribbon in competition.  (Perhaps you didn’t even win but he made it around a cross-country course successfully for the first time and you were within the time allowed – an accomplishment in itself!)  Either way, an accomplishment of that nature is wonderful for admission committees to read about because it shows that you have determination, focus, and follow-through that will make you a successful college student.

In summary, there are a variety of topics that will fulfill the parameters of this prompt but there are also a lot of invitations for you to get off-topic that you must be careful to avoid if you’re going to choose this one for your application essay.  So plan carefully before you begin writing so that you know exactly what you want to say.  (And if you need help along the way, contact me!)

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