If you’ve followed me on the r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit or its Discord server, then you’re probably familiar with my lengthy rants advising college applicants to avoid prompt 7 when they write their Common Application Personal Statement (CAPS). Despite my exhortations and pleas, I still receive messages containing either essays or abstract ideas intended for this prompt. To make matters worse, college consultants, teachers, and self-styled experts (usually recently-admitted college students or graduates) have been known to advise students who can’t think of a topic to use prompt 7. That advice reinforces the problems students create for themselves with prompt 7.
College applicants choose prompt 7 because they think it’s an invitation to free-write. In a certain sense, it does suggest that freedom, but before you start writing a love letter to the admissions committee or penning a page of word salad, let’s examine the prompt.
Share an essay on any topic of your choice.
Great. You choose the topic. What follows are some very loose guidelines for what the essay can be:
- It can be (an essay) you’ve already written
- (It can be an essay) that responds to a different prompt
- (It can be an essay) of your own design.
While the College Board is trying to be helpful by encouraging students to be creative, the problem is that this prompt can be interpreted outside of the spirit of the other 6 prompts, which are intended to provoke you, the applicant, to…
A. Articulate who you are: that is, what you know about yourself, and what makes you uniquely you, (prompt 1) or,
B. Write about how you became you are by reflecting on something or someone in your life that shaped you.
If you write – or recycle – an essay that doesn’t discuss either A or B, you risk writing an essay that does not accomplish what the personal statement is intended to accomplish: helping admissions officers get to know you, as a person.
Since most of the holistic college application process is about academic and extracurricular packaging and positioning, a lot of applicants are skeptical about why, exactly, they’re not supposed to write about their academic and extracurricular activities. After all, the thinking goes, aren’t colleges supposed to be looking for the “best and brightest,” and can’t those qualities be quantified through grades and test scores? Being asked to write a personal essay seems incongruent in a system that rewards test scores and grades, neglects the humanities in favor of STEM, and has forgotten the value of a liberal education. The most vocal critics of the essays are, naturally, the ones who have the most trouble with them. Some of that trouble stems (no pun intended) from an inflexible mindset about anything that challenges them to reflect on their self-image, which has been carefully constructed around grades, ECs, and test scores. They regard the essays as either a nuisance – another piece of the system to try to game – or an invitation to subtly brag about their academic or extracurricular achievements. They look for the easiest way out, one of the consequences of having adopted the values that they’ve been steeped in since birth: the triumph of capital over culture.
To a 17-year-old who is convinced that they don’t have any experiences worth writing about or that “music is my life” is a unique theme, the 7th prompt looks like the road to the Promised Land. They start thinking things like, “I can just recycle an essay I wrote in 10th grade,” or “I’ll write 650 words about how I use humor to connect with people.” Rather than inspire students to produce something really interesting, prompt 7 generally perpetuates trite claptrap, pretentiously abstract conceptual meanderings (stream-of-consciousness nonsense better suited for the I’m-14-And-This-Is-Deep subreddit), and word salad – essays with no thematic cohesion, coherency, direction, or organization. Outliers like the 2016 Costco essay are just that: exceptions that, using Fowler’s definition, prove the rule.
Despite this, I know that college consultants will continue prescribing prompt 7, and that students will continue embracing it as an easy way to put the essay behind them. I prefer to challenge students, especially those who are most resistant to the process. I want them to succeed, but I want them to succeed by fearlessly examining themselves and their beliefs, by seeking out and probing their biases, and by reflecting on how their experiences have shaped their values. In my conversations with applicants, I encourage them to develop the kind of self-knowledge that will allow them to look at a Common Application prompt and immediately think of how it relates to them… even prompt 7.