Skim Through Something Meaningful Essay

UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.

The following content in this post is no longer relevant and is outdated!

About three years ago, I wrote a post to try to help students applying to the University of California find topics to answer Prompt 1 for their college application essay: Describe the World You Come From. Since I shared my advice in my Describe the World You Come From post, I have received more than a 100 comments from students. Most have specific questions, mainly trying to see if their idea of a “world” would make a great essay.

Since then, I tried to answer most of their questions. This year, I am so swamped with tutoring students, however, that I’m not able to answer all the questions right now. But I have noticed that many cover the same ground—even though the topics range from someone’s world of books, to playing tennis, to making cookies, to an ill family member, etc. So I pulled some of the questions that I thought are more common, along with my answers, in hopes they might answer questions still lingering out there. See below.

Most students say they feel stuck. Or they have an idea, but wonder if it’s really a world or if it’s too general or interesting enough for their essay. If that’s one of your concerns, I would suggest reading some of the Q&As below, and see if you find them of help. If you want to read more of these, just go to that Describe the World You Come From Post and scroll to the bottom–at last count there were 228 comments (including my replies). Even if you don’t have a specific question, just skimming through these comments is a great way to search for ideas for your own topics!

Also, check out 3 Sample UC Prompt 1 Essays for Describe the World You Come From. And, I have this Brainstorm the World You Come From post and this Show The World You Come From post to help you write your essay in a narrative style.

November is a big month for the UC application season, since these are due for undergraduates by the end of this month. You still have plenty of time, but the sooner you get cracking the better!

Here are some of the comments/questions from students and my answers. (I put the topic ideas in bold.) Remember, I’m just giving you my best opinion, so trust yourself when deciding what to write about. This is your world and your essay!

Erica: Hi, for the “world I come from” prompt, how specific can I get? I was thinking about writing about my hobby of drawing faces and how that connects to me. But I’m not sure if this is even answering the question.)

Me: Your topic idea of writing about your hobby drawing faces is an excellent one, but not necessarily for this prompt. It would be a better choice for a prompt that asks you to describe a hobby, a passion, an accomplishment, that type of thing (more of a personal statement or Prompt #2 for UC app.).For this prompt, you are looking for a larger “world” or community that influenced you. If you loved drawing faces in a special place, such as an art room at school or a sun porch in your house, you could describe that as your world, and then go on to talking about how this “world” has shaped your love of art, etc. (Other words to think about instead of your “world” could be “community,” “environment,” “space,” or “habitat”–I believe it needs to somehow be a place, either literally or figuratively.) Hope this helps!

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AdityaFor the “world I come from” prompt, I just don’t understand exactly what it wants me to answer. I come from an Indian Family who doesn’t go to temple much but is deeply connected with my roots. I am very social and active in school, however I feel at peace with all the craziness that goes on in my life when I play Carrom (Indian Board Game) which I learned from my grand father. Could that be a good topic for this prompt?

Me:  Yes, your playing Carrom to find peace and connect with your roots would make a perfect topic for this prompt. What you want is to focus in on a piece of your “world”–such as this game–and then describe what it means to you and your development. I would start by recreating a moment of yourself playing the game: “It was my turn. I slid the round, red game piece over to the next square. Then I looked at my grandfather, who was pondering his next move….”, and then mention how it makes you feel, why it makes you feel that way, what it has taught you, not just about that game, but about life! In this prompt, you must remember not only to show the world you come from (which you will do by sharing this game and tradition), but the second part–describe how it has “shaped your dreams and aspirations.” If you talk about what you learned from this tradition, you also must include how you intend to use the values or lessons from this tradition in your future, that is, what you hope to do and accomplish. It’s okay if you don’t have all the answers–go ahead and say that if you want–but at least touch on the idea of how you hope to apply them in your future endeavors as best you can. Congratulations! You have a wonderful topic here!! Now you just need to pound out a rough draft!! Best of luck! Janine

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Courtney: For the first prompt, I was thinking of writing about my volunteering at Girl Scouts and at a tennis program. Is that okay for this prompt?

Me: Hi Courtney, You can write about volunteering at Girl Scouts (that’s definitely a “world”) but the trick is to focus on something specific that happened, and then describe what you learned from that small experience. Make sure to also talk about how you would use the lessons you learned in your future endeavors. (Remember, this prompt has two parts, and the second asked how your world “shaped your dreams and aspirations.”) Good luck!

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Nakul: Hi. I’m really stuck on this prompt and the only thing that i can think of is talking about when my dad bought and uses the computer, he is so dumbstruck my it, that i want to work to better the task of using a computer. Do you think this could for the prompt?

Me: Yes, this could be a wonderful topic. Is the “world” you are describing that of technology? If you started with an anecdote or description of “a time” your dad struggled with his computer and how you tried to help him, that could illustrate your main point about the generation gap in your world. Then go on to talk about how you help or deal with your dad, how you feel about the tensions there, and what you learned in dealing with them. And don’t forget to discuss how you will apply those lessons in your future “dreams and aspirations.” Boom. Great essay!

* * *

Emily: Wait, I am so confused. Should I be using an anecdote for this topic? I thought an anecdote would be more appropriate for the second essay prompt on the UC application. I’m writing about being a peer educator at Planned Parenthood.

Me: An anecdote is just a short description of something that happened, often called a “mini-story.” They are often used at the beginning of essays like these to give the reader an example of your main point, and engage them by putting them right in the moment. You can use this technique in one or both essays–it’s up to you. I like them because they not only work as strong “hooks” for the reader, but also cast your essay in a narrative (which means story-telling) style and tone. Who doesn’t love a good story? But it’s totally fine to start your essay in another style, if that works better for you. I have posts about how to write anecdotes under the topic listing at the right of this blog, if that helps.

As far your topic about being a peer educator at Planned Parenthood, I think an anecdote could work well. You could start by describing a little incident or experience you had while working with a woman there, and use that as the springboard to explain what you learned. But it’s totally your call as to what works best for the points you want to make about yourself in your essay. You could not use any anecdotes in your UC essays, or use an anecdotal introduction in just one, or in both. There are no rules; just what works best for you. Hope this clears up your confusion a bit! JR

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Sandrine: Hello! I find this article to be very helpful; after reading my response to the question, I realized that I was being way too general, so I tried to focus on specific experiences, but couldn’t really find any. I am a reader and a writer, so would talking about a particular world that a book takes place in (for example, the world in S.E. Hinton’s books The Outsiders and That Was Then, This Is Now) and how that has affected me in real life be appropriate for this prompt? Because the books have really impacted me, and even helped me with my depression. Thank you!

Me: Hi Sandrine, YES, I believe books can create a world, absolutely! I think you are wise to focus in one one book, or one author, or even one place in a book, that has felt as though it transformed you into a different world. I would think about how specifically books have created a world for you, and what quality of yours they have helped your develop (“shaped”). Then I would think of an example from a book you read that you could recreate with your introduction to put us in your place when you are being transformed to that other world (creative writing opp!! see my posts on how to write anecdotes!! Let us see how even a small piece of a book can change how you think, feel, etc.) Then you can talk about how that book and then work in how other books have created a world, and then go into how they have shaped you–and end with how you will continue to use that quality in your future. The key is to get specific, and use those specific examples to support the point you are making about your world and what it means to you. (Yes, explaining how these books have helped you cope with the “real” world could make a nice twist! Good luck! (Thank God for books, right!!) JR

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26th June 2017

Students applying to American universities are almost guaranteed to have to fill out the Common App form. A key part of this process is the personal essay, which (along with the rest of the information each student enters in their form), is sent to every university to which the student applies via the Common App.

Here are 9 tips for acing the Common App essay:

  1. Choose the right prompt, then reflect...

Each student has to choose one of 7 prompts to answer (the prompts for this year are at the end of this article).

Universities do not prefer one prompt over another, so students should choose the one they feel most comfortable answering.

Top tip: anecdotally students who choose prompt seven often write less successful essays because they don’t provide enough evidence of self-reflection, something all the other prompts are ask for.

  1. Start early

Students often find it hard to make themselves start this essay well in advance, considering that it is only supposed to be 650 words, or about a page.

However there’s a lot to get done: this essay, coursework, supplemental essays, and other application tasks. Students who don’t start their essays until after the summer holidays before their senior year might get overwhelmed.

Top tip: students should really get started on the Common App essay by June of their penultimate year of high school. This gives them plenty of time to draft it, as well as time to realise whether they need to do last-minute extracurricular activities that they can then mention in their essays!

  1. It’s about the person, not the major

Whereas a UK Personal Statement is about convincing an admissions tutor that the applicant is an ideal candidate for a particular course, the Common App essay’s main purpose is to help admissions officers get to know the student. The student’s personality needs to shine through.

The kind of questions about the student the admissions tutors want answered include:

  • What are their values?
  • Would they fit in on campus and contribute to it?
  • Would they be a valuable addition to classroom discussions?

Top tip: a good way of showing fit is by having students give an example of their daily conversations with friends. Whether they regularly talk about Locke’s social contract, about Manchester United transfer news, or about the newest broadway plays, have them quote one of their latest discussions in their essay.

  1. Open strong

The essay will likely be read in a few minutes by a stressed and slightly overworked admissions officer. It is only natural that they might start skimming at some point, or reading on auto-pilot.

So the essay needs a strong opening sentence that will catch the reader’s attention, and make sure they stay attentive throughout the essay.

Top tip: encourage students to start with a sentence that brings up a few questions, or raises suspense. Something like this: “The light turned green, and the pilot flicked a switch. I couldn’t help but close my eyes as the door in front of me opened, revealing a 30,000 feet drop. I instinctively stepped back and swallowed. Then I leapt out of the plane.”

  1. Let the inspiration flow

It can be helpful to start by simply writing without thinking too deeply about structure.

Writing in this way encourages creativity and can help students find links between ideas that they were not aware of before. The student’s personality might be more likely to shine through.

These essays will of course need to be reworked, but it’s a good way to start.

  1. Engage the audience

International students are often used to writing factual, logical essays designed to convey a large amount of information as straightforwardly as possible.

But this isn’t the right approach for the Common App essay. A better approach is to think of the Common App essay as a short story. Encourage students to make use of narrative, humour, and suspense.

Instead of:

“One day last summer we spent a whole day fishing. My friends and I set up camp next to the river, and prepared our rods. I really hoped we would catch a big fish, but eventually all we got was an old boot.”

How about:

“After three hours of agitated waiting, our hearts racing at every trace of movement along the fishing line, it finally happened. The line tightened, and the rod softly screeched as it encountered resistance. I jumped up, nearly dropped the rod in excitement, and reeled in as fast as I could. A huge, moss-covered object slowly came into view… It turned out we had caught a rare size 11 hiking boot.”

  1. Maintain focus

Tackling many topics in one essay will lead to writing that is confusing and ineffective.

Students should find one or two experiences they’ve had that fit their chosen question prompt, and find a concrete conclusion, such as “I value learning above all else”.

For example, when answering the first Common App essay prompt, a student might choose to write about their immigrant background, give a few specific examples of when they taught others about their culture, and eventually conclude by stating that they believe it’s essential in life to walk a line between adapting to one’s environment and staying true to one’s roots.

  1. Be specific

Here’s an excerpt from an imaginary essay:

“My brother and I went hiking in a nearby forest every Sunday. Bonding with him on these walks was really valuable to me”.

This is too general in terms of the events being described, and in terms of the impact on the writer. Here’s a re-write:

“Nothing compares to the damp, floral scent of the woods after sunrise. When we were 5 my brother and I started walking to a nearby forest to play hide and seek, and got hooked on the feeling of discovery we experienced when following each little seldom-trodden path”.

  1. No clichés, and make it unique

Overused words like ‘interesting’ and ‘passion’ are best avoided.

In addition: it’s fine if an activity being described is not the most original (it could be starting a school club, or being captain of a sports team), but the conclusions drawn from the story and the connections made between other areas of their lives should be unique to that student.

For example, let’s say a student has played piano for most of their life. While commendable, that doesn’t make that student stand out from the crowd. It would be more interesting for the student to connect their favorite piece by Bach to a particular type of algebra they have been studying at school, and then conclude that one of the reasons they want to study maths is because it is omnipresent.


The Common App essay’s 7 prompts for the 2017-18 application cycle...

This year students must choose 1 of 7 prompts, then write an essay of a maximum 650 words. Here are the prompts:

  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.


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Supplemental essays: tailor your strengths to each university


Author bio:

Elias van Emmerick is a Belgian student who completed his IB at 16 and next year is set to attend Pomona College, Forbes’ #1 Ranked College in 2015. He gained a great deal of experience with both types of applications by applying to both UK and US schools. He interviewed at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago.


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