Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts, Pt. II

Continued from my previous post, analyzing and 'hacking' the new prompts on the Common Application...

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

The Approach: This is the prompt for everyone who has ever run for office, volunteered for a campaign, written an editorial, or led an uprising on campus. As with No. 2, the fun in this essay stems from tension. But, unlike No. 2 (and No. 5) it offers a more natural opportunity to reveal personal or intellectual growth. Students are implicitly asked to tell story and explicitly asked to analyze ("reflect on") it. That's a great, time-honored approach to personal essay-writing.

Traps: This prompt has too many parts. The first sentence alone should be enough to get a writer going. I fear that, as phrased, this prompt is going to result in some formulaic essays that respond to each element one-by-one, possibly with obvious topic sentences like, "I acted because...."

There's also a troubling contradiction. "Challenge" does not necessarily entail action. Beliefs can be challenged verbally, and they can be contemplated inwardly. These challenges may or may not lead to "decisions" in any proactive sense -- even though they can absolutely be worth writing about. Finally, students shouldn't merely "reflect" on the incident -- they need to narrate enough of the story so that an intelligent, but unfamiliar, reader knows what the writer is talking about.

The Hack: Just as the hack for No. 3 notes that the "failure" doesn't have to be first-person, in this prompt, the belief or idea being challenged doesn't have to belong to someone else. Students may write about reflexive challenges to their own ideas. This prompt may therefore offer the best chance to write about an academic topic -- a chance that the authors of the Common App have unforgivably omitted (as if a student's intellectual life can be neither a significant part of his personality nor a matter of any concern to his prospective colleges). Students who want to emphasize their intellectual lives can write about a research project, favorite author, or abstract idea with which they have wrestled internally.

The Super-Hack: Begin your essay with this sentence: "For the next 625 words I will be challenging the idea that a good essay must necessarily respond directly to a particular prompt." Then write the essay you really want to write.

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

The Approach: I don't know where I'm most content, but I know one of the places where I'm least content: anyplace where I'm reading this prompt.

I fear a torrent of mawkish pleasantries:

"I'm content....
...in my mother's arms.
...on roller coasters.
...in a field of daises.
...at the abattoir, after midnight, with cleaver in hand and a fresh herd on the hoof."

Writers who choose this prompt will, ideally, create their own tension, or at least try get beyond the blandness of "contentment." The best of these essays will describe someplace unexpected or who describe an unusual version of contentment. Students might be content in the library, where they're conducting original research, or they might be content at their menial job, because the job exposes them to fascinating co-workers. They might also contemplate a world that may be going to hell in a handbasket, and then explain and how their contentment contrasts with challenges in the world around them. These stories must be written with a very steady hand so as not to fall into vague musings on "meaningfulness."

Traps: This whole prompt is a trap.

In particular, responses about fantasy worlds and euphoric protestations will be particularly abrasive for readers who are cooped up in offices amid towers of applications. That goes double for essays about travel.

What's wrong with pleasantries? Think of it this way: How many happy novels are in the literary canon? The reason that everyone from Shakespeare to Plath to Hemingway shied away from happiness is that happiness isn't interesting. Tension is interesting. Conflict is interesting. Transformation is interesting. Reading about contentment is like waiting at a baggage carousel watching other people's luggage go by.

And perfect contentment? Who are they kidding?

The Hack: The most useful thing about this prompt is that it refers to a place. Everything happens somewhere, so almost any real-life story you want to tell that involves a place can be tweaked to fit this prompt. Even if the anecdote doesn't involve obvious contentment, such as my example above of the menial job, contentment can still lie in the student's reflection on the challenged faced, the idea learned, or the job well done.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The Approach: This prompt bears an odd resemblance to Prompt No. 1, with a few potentially useful differences. The explicit reference to culture and community opens up worlds of possibility. Students can reflect on an ethnic background or analyze the ways that they go about life in their hometowns. Some of the best essays are those in which students acknowledge the world around them -- often through mention of current events, politics, or social issues -- and offer analysis thereof.

Students need to take care not to create caricatured versions of their families' cultural practices, such that they would fail to describe a genuine connection to (or critique of) those practices. I've read many a spiritless essay on Indian dance and Moon Festivals. Students from minority and/or immigrant backgrounds also must realize that any application reader is already familiar with most, if not all, of the major ethnic groups in the United States. Students must discuss their personal experiences and not dwell on the generic experience.

Traps: This one has three big traps: family, childhood, and adulthood.

Essays about family often commit the error of what I call asymmetrical importance. What is important to the writer (his mom, dad, siblings, pets) often holds zero meaning for the detached reader. Students who want to write about family must make sure that they have a unique story to tell and that they, not the sagacious uncle or patient mother, are the focus of the essay.

In the annals of college applications, fixation on childhood has undermined many a promising essay. It's tempting for students to chart their personal development by starting at the beginning of time. We get cute stories of Legos, princess costumes, and imaginary friends. But, students are not applying to college as six-year-olds, or even as 16-year-olds: they're applying on the cusp of adulthood, and the most compelling essays are those that tell colleges what a student's personality, intellect, and character are like in the here and now.

My biggest fear, though, is that students are going to proclaim their maturity in grandiose terms. Most 18-year-olds are still kids -- and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm long past age 18, and I still have no idea what adulthood is. Most of my friends would say the same. Adulthood has infinite changing definitions. Kids who are truly mature should demonstrate their maturity through stories and examples, not through assertions.

The Hack: 1) I'm always on the hunt for ways that students can discuss their intellectual development. What better way to distinguish adulthood from childhood than a discussion of ideas? 2) As with Prompt 3, the "event" does not have to involve the writer directly. Students can write about an event that they witnessed or contemplated and explain how their reaction to the event marks their maturation.

In "Politics and the English Language" -- arguably the most important essay of the 20th century, and a must-read for any author of nonfiction (do it now; there is no better use of the next ten minutes of your life) -- George Orwell presents a handful of rules of good writing. All of them are worth abiding by, even today. His final rule is, "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous." Orwell might as well have been referring to the Common App: If these prompts are so constraining that they would lead students to write something awful, then students must reject the prompts and write something great instead. (I'm sure Mark Twain would agree.)