VARIETYListen, I know I’ve made this points many, many times before–colleges are NOT looking for a well-rounded student; they are looking for specialists (even UCLA’s Director of Admission said it’s great to be “perfectly lopsided”)–BUT you don’t want to come off like a one-trick pony either. Variety is the spice of life. And four essays finally gives you the chance to reveal your many flavors. While four essays is double what the UCs wanted in the recent past, four is still not that many. If you can’t come up with four different great stories or qualities about yourself, then maybe colleges have a right to be wary of admitting you. Use your four opportunities to show as full a picture about yourself as possible. You want breadth (with four varied topics) and depth (with four individually versatile essays). Here are 7 tips to picking the four best prompts:
1. Virtually everyone should choose Prompt #8 (what makes you stand out?). The UCs are finally all grown up and bold enough to ask for what they want, which is, “What’s so good about you, and why should we admit you?” Unless you have solid answers for four other prompts, then I highly recommend Prompt #8. It’s as close to an open topic as you can get, which means you get the incredible opportunity to take your best essay (ideally your main 650 word Common App essay) and adapt it for the UCs.
Remember, it’s far easier to cut down a longer essay than it is to expand a shorter essay. This is also why I highly recommend NOT starting with the UC essays. It’s wiser to start with the Common App or something that requires a longer essay and cut down.
2. Pick the 4 prompts that resonate with you best and most easily. If you read a prompt and are drawing a blank, especially after you revisit it a few days or weeks later, then that’s a sign the prompt isn’t right for you. But if you read a prompt and immediately have a response, then that’s a good sign to explore deeply and understand the significance of those initial thoughts.
For example, for prompt #3 (your greatest talent/skill), I would instantly say writing. Examples instantly flood my head without even trying: In 8th grade, because my teacher saw something in my writing, he insisted that I write a full essay instead of the normal assignment of one paragraph he assigned to everyone else; in fact, he wanted me to teach the rest of the class how to write their paragraphs; furthermore, my high school class voted me “Most Likely to be the Next New York Times Bestseller;” I was published in a Stanford anthology, attended a creative writing camp, wrote a novel for my senior project, served as the go-to guy for anything writing related at my school, and simply loved writing in general.
When ideas flow easily, like you don’t even have to try, you can be sure it’s a perfect prompt for you. That doesn’t mean you have to write about the specific examples that popped up immediately, but they are an indication that it’s a meaningful topic in your life, so it’s worth writing about.
Now, my first thoughts for prompt #3 would have worked perfectly for prompts #2 (creativity), #4 (educational opportunity), and #6 (favorite academic subject) as well. But I wouldn’t use “writing” as my topic for ALL three prompts. That would come off too one-dimensional. I’m more than my writing, and I’m sure you are more than one quality too.
3. Pick only one of the educational/academic topics (Prompts #4, #5, and #6), otherwise it gets a little redundant. The exception is if you truly have something significantly different to say about these prompts. Yes, these prompts are asking about different ASPECTS of academics, but unless your stories are truly worth separate essays, I would find a way to merge them into one.
4. Don’t try to be like mysterious James Bond here. I know he’s suave, badass, and all, but we’re trying to be transparent here, so tell us about your adventures. Pick topics that allow you to express the most meaningful, impressive, or interesting things about yourself or your life. Look over your activities resume and overall application. Is there anything interesting there that people would naturally ask more about? If you are a grandmaster in chess who has competed across the nation (or even the globe), you better make sure you dedicate an essay to that.
Or if there was an event that truly rocked your world, like if your house was destroyed (how did you deal with that?), you came out as gay (don’t worry about being cliché; the topic doesn’t matter if your analysis is deep), or your brother killed someone (someone got into Harvard with that essay), then tell us!
Don’t have anything so dramatic? Well, what about a particular identity that everyone knows you as? Find a topic that allows you to tell that story. It’s a huge part of your life that people literally know you as that kind of person, so why wouldn’t you want to tell us?
5. Your chosen topics should feel instinctively “good” or “right” to you. Your stories shouldn’t feel like pulling teeth. They should flow easily. The best writing is often the easiest to create because it gushes forth quickly, effortlessly, and eloquently. I’m not saying your first several drafts will be Hemingway status, but your ideas should come without too much effort. Then you can go back in and revise and tighten the wording and organization up. You should feel excited to talk about your answer, even if you’re not excited to write it. If you aren’t, your lack of enthusiasm will show. Trust me, even the best writers have immense trouble faking something they have no passion about. I’m not saying the prompts need to make you excited, but the stories you settle on should make you feel, “Yes, this is me. This is what I want to express.”
6. Pick topics that allow you to peel away layers, like an onion. You want to pick prompts that let you explore multiple levels of yourself, multiple thoughts, values, or qualities. If your essay zeroes in on a single point only (say creativity), then you’ve lost the chance to show more about yourself. I’ll talk more about this in the versatility section below.
7. Don’t pick multiple topics whose answers are generally the same. For example, if you discuss the perseverance that you developed in sports (super clichéd btw) for one essay, don’t discuss the perseverance that you developed at your part-time job in another essay. It’s the same quality, so you’ve effectively lost your chance to show another cool side of yourself.