Tuesday, March 21, 2017

When Less Is More

There are things a high school junior can put off in life:
--Making your bed.
--That overcooked broccoli on your dinner plate.
--The gum on your sock left on the floor by an inconsiderate sibling.

And then there are some things that require immediate attention.

The updated Common Application essay prompts for the 2017-18 application year have been released. And we can guarantee your first draft of your initial idea can only get better with more thought and polishing. The prompts are:

1. 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. 

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? 

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 

No need to freak out. Many high schools allow junior and/or senior students to complete a first-attempt Common App essay as an in-class English assignment. Maybe you are already planning or working on yours.

There are a lot of ways to approach this important effort to help you gain entrance to the college of your choice. Try some concepts, some with teacher guidance, some on your own.

Here's one tip, with a little background from a journalist. I call it "Last Before First." Try it before writing your first essay.

Imagine that your essay is going to be the cover story of a magazine.

In the lifecycle of a feature story, there is a PR pitch, an interesting phone call, a dinner-table conversation, a nugget of information, then research, consultation with experts, numerous back-and-forths between writer and editor and a dash of imagination to find a hook to ensure the story will be fresh. Editors may skip all the traditional journalism rigor and jump ahead to one of the LAST things--writing a headline for the story.

Can you captivate readers with four-to-six words that will be splashed across the cover in very large type? If you cannot think of a showstopper that makes others want to read the piece, then you have a problem.

So, after you have a topic, try writing a headline for it and bounce it off mom, dad or your English teacher. Does their expression say, “Wow”? Find that hook that makes your essay one in a thousand.

--Mike Ryan

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