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Aspiration - a Maplewood Newsletter  

August 9, 2005

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The latest college essay topics - a Maplewood survey

Still with more than four months before the application deadline to most top US colleges and universities this year, applicants are already taking on the one component in the application that they can still exert some final control – the college essay. There are so many students with perfect GPA’s and high test scores applying to the top schools, and each of them needs good essays to give themselves an extra edge.

Maplewood surveyed the latest essay and personal statement topics for 2005-06 college applications. An interesting, sometimes surprising and amusing find, as we expected. We would like our students to start preparing them as soon as possible to ensure a more satisfactory job by the deadline. If you are not applying this year, it’s still worth taking a look to see what’s in place for you soon. While topics vary from the conventional to the uncommon and the funny, they are by no means easy to deal with. We group them into broad categories across different schools for your reading. Sit back, relax, and take a look:

The Conventional (and the most frequent)

Describe a significant experience, setback, disappointment, difficult or trying circumstance, challenge, opportunity, achievement, accomplishment, or ethical dilemma you have faced, and your reaction to it or its impact on you. (Common App*, MIT, U of Michigan, USC, U of Texas at Austin)

Describe which of your activities (extracurricular and personal activities or work experience) has been most meaningful and why. (Common App)

Explain why you decided which extracurricular activity on your [activities-services-awards] list was the most important to you. (NYU)

Discuss a personal, local, national, or international issue of concern and importance to you (Common App, U of Michigan), an external influence (a person, a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work, a place an event, etc.) that is significant to you (Common App), has particular meaning to you or has changed your view of the world or yourself (NYU), or has caused you to change direction (USC).

*About the Common App: Over 200 schools use a standardized application form called the Common Application for applying to them. This year, the Common App asks students to write 250-500 words about some significant experience, an important issue, an influential person or character, or to pick a "topic of your choice." That makes it easier for students to apply to many schools without changing their essays, but it also puts the pressure on applicants to choose a good topic and polish those 500 words to perfection.

The Biographical

MIT makes it plain on the biographic statement, "It's often a reflection of an applicant's dreams and aspirations, dreams shaped by the worlds we inhabit." Applicants are asked the following: Describe the world you come from, for example your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town. How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?

NYU wants to know how a student adds to the many stories of a New Yorker: New York is a city full of people from other places. They all bring with them a story of where they are from. Tell us something about where you're from and what single facet of your hometown experience has shaped you into the person you are today.

The Interesting

Some schools make the essay a critical thinking exercise and expository writing. While the topic is interesting, the writing may only find appeal in the hard-willed. (So if you can live up to the challenge, you might have already gained an edge!)

Some writers suggest that by tradition science is concerned with truth while art is concerned with beauty. How might these two endeavors be the same? How might they be irreconcilably different? (U of Michigan)

Select an imaginative book you've read for pleasure and then defend your selection against this criticism: Because it does not tell the truth, imaginative literature must shut down readers' rational faculties, in order that it can appeal to their emotions; the effect of such literature, then, is to weaken the minds of its readers. The applicant is essentially asked to defend like Plato, who gave the original line of criticism. (U of Texas at Austin)

With your future personal growth in mind, describe a potential classmate that you believe you could learn from either within or outside a formal classroom environment. (U of Texas at Austin)

Describe a situation in everyday life in which it is sensible to apply the scientific method, or explain a belief you accepted at some time in your life but have rejected on the basis of a rational process. (U of Texas, Austin).

The Boring, but Important

These are topics probing why the applicant chooses the school in the first place, and how he/she can contribute to the diversity of the school’s community. The topics may look straightforward, but are important for the school to get to know you and see how you may fit in. After all, attending college is not like choosing a place for a holiday. First and foremost is studying and learning, and you will be spending four important years in a community that you'd better enjoy.

Which department or program appeals to you and why? (MIT)

Please tell us what led you to select your anticipated academic program and/or our school/college, and what interests you most about your intended discipline. (NYU)

Describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you. (Common App)

What would you as an individual bring to our campus community to build a superb educational community with students of diverse talents, experiences, opinions, and cultural backgrounds? (U of Michigan)

The topics requested by the individual schools or departments can range from the imaginative to the plain tell-your-tale. They do reflect the character of the academic department where you may want to get in. It's a chance for you to get to know the school or department too.

Describe an aesthetic experience you have had that was brought about by an architectural space or a sequence of spaces, either interior or exterior. Try to link the nature of the experience to the nature of the space. (School of Architecture, U of Texas, Austin)

Imagine you have been asked to present a statement to your local School Board in favor of retaining the high school’s performing arts programs, all threatened by budget cuts. What would you tell them? (School of Music, U of Michigan)

Where do you imagine your chosen field of study will be in 10 years, and how do you fit into that picture? (School of Engineering, U of Michigan)

Compare and contrast an actual apple, a two-dimensional image of an apple, and a three dimensional replica of an apple. (School of Art and Design, U of Michigan)

The Uncommon

U of Chicago's essay instructions are uncommon to start: "Each topic can be addressed with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between. Play, analyze (don't agonize), create, compose - let us hear the result of your thinking about something that interests you, in a voice that is your own."

The basic questions ask for only a paragraph or two and fall on the conventional: "How does the U of Chicago satisfy your desire for learning and your future? or "Describe one or more of your favorite books, poems, authors, films, plays, pieces of music, musicians, performers, paintings, artists, magazines, or newspapers."

The extended essay part is one that is truly uncommon, with topics contributed by students admitted by the university from last year. One such essay asks this year's applicant to “Destroy a question with the answer”, prompting with a quotation from the late critic/writer Susan Sontag and U of Chicago alumna: "The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions."

Another essay asks the applicant for his/her observations on "The power of string." The essay instruction suggests the violin’s sound mechanism, string cheese, superstring theory in physics, and Theseus's escape route from Labyrinth as possible places to start. Well, we would say if you go beyond the explicit instructions, you should probably see that the school is really asking, "How would you handle ideas?"

Other topics are akin to an English class assignment to write a deceptively simple “Truthful page about yourself”, or an exposition into “Mind that does not stick”, an abstract, one-phrase quote from a 13th-century Zen master.

Applicants usually find essays a chance to tell admissions officers why they are perfect for their school and to explain things, like why they didn't get an A in an important high school or AP course. Such self-promotion is possible because few colleges ask direct questions in their essay prompts. The University of Chicago is uncommon in that the essays do not provide such a chance for applicants to do their self-promotion but rather probe deep into the applicant’s intellect and mind.

The Fun

There's got to be some fun somewhere. Here are some of the lighter topics we've seen:

Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it. (MIT)

The 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot said, “Only passions, great passions, can elevate the soul to great things.” Describe one of your passions and discuss its contribution to your personal growth. (USC)

Please tell us about something you did last Sunday afternoon (or the Sunday before that, or the Sunday before that . . .) (NYU)

Quick Takes: To make things simpler for the applicants and the admissions officers, some schools have decided to get to know their candidates through short Q&A’s. How about this: write down three words that describe you, and then in no more than one sentence, describe your favorite leisure activity, favorite food, best movie of all time, favorite performer/band/composer, favorite quote, the last book you’ve read, your most prized possession, role model, dream job, and so on. (USC)

The Supplemental (and sometimes optional)

These are questions that give additional opportunities to let the schools know about your intellectual and personal interests. These questions may ask what research you have done, any additional references from parents, siblings, relatives, and friends (Duke). MIT asks students to write on things you have created (a design, a device, an object, an idea or concept, a piece of music or art). Duke also asks students to discuss how a book, essay, poem, or journal article you have read has changed your understanding of the world, other people, or yourself.

Now that you’ve seen some of the most representative college essay topics, are you ready to take them on? NYU sums up the role of the personal essay: “The essay offers an opportunity for you to help us become acquainted with you in ways different from grades, test scores, and other objective data. It allows you to demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself.” Understand the essay's importance, get going, and make a difference in your college application. Good luck!

A four-point essay advice
Maplewood Essay Workshop

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About this newsletter: Aspiration is an occasional news and events announcement by Maplewood Education Services, an independent college counseling service provider and is distributed to Maplewood students and parents via email and made available on Maplewood's website.

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