Application Advice: Topic First, Prompt Second

Here’s the next installment of my application advice… If you missed the first, check it out here.

I love application essays. I love writing essay prompts. I love reading essays. I loved writing my college application essays (I know, weird!). I do not remember what prompt I answered for the Common Application, but I remember my essay. And I wrote about chicken.

Well, sort of.

Here’s what I wrote about:

For most of high school I had a hate-hate relationship with Shakespeare. I hated to read it (note: I assign no blame to my teachers for this; just an adolescent impatience with things that were hard) and I was convinced I would hate to perform it (note: until my senior fall, I had zero experience putting the Bard on stage).

To be or not to be

Much to my chagrin, Taming of the Shrew was picked as the fall play. I declared I would never audition because I “hated” Shakespeare. My wonderful drama teacher strongly encouraged me to reconsider. I did and was cast as Katarina.

I labored over what I deemed burdensome language for weeks before stepping on stage in a period costume, still not convinced this “Emily does Shakespeare” thing was a good idea. But I took a deep breath, looked out into the fuzzy blackness of the audience and when I opened my mouth, it was Katarina that popped out. In that moment I realized hard does not equal bad, hard work was rewarding, and that a little trust in myself went a long way. My moral at the end was that those were the lessons I wanted to take with me to college (and I can say now into the rest of my adult life).

Shakespeare silly

The chicken part? I completely blanked on my lines in the beginning of Act IV, but luckily Katarina spent most of the scene hungrily chasing a chicken leg Petruchio dangled in front of her. I began to doubt myself in that moment, to slide back into the comfort of hating Shakespeare, but decided to play out one of my newly found lessons and trust my abilities and that I had done the work. I followed the chicken leg around stage until- voila!- Katarina’s line tumbled effortlessly from my mouth at the right time. A nice little happy ending.

Chicken leg

Was this the deepest essay? Perhaps not. Was it flawlessly written? I can guarantee it wasn’t. My hunch (or perhaps retroactive application of my admission experience) is that its authenticity is what made it a successful essay. That authenticity was largely a product of the fact that I really, really wanted to write this essay. This topic was so immediate for me and felt like such a huge part of my developing identity that I had to write this essay. I was motivated to make it the absolutely best representation of me that I could.

Application Advice #2: Write about something you WANT to write about. Put another way: write about something important to you. And still another:  write about something that shares something fundamental to who you are.

And here’s a tip on how: Application Advice #2b: Think about what you want me (or the admission officer reading your application) to know about you before you pick the essay prompt*. It’s very tempting to pick a prompt and try to answer it. Instead, think long and hard about what you want me to know about you. When I finish reading a file, I don’t remember the student’s grades or scores, or how many clubs elected them president. I remember how the student described themselves, their experiences, their values and goals in their essays. The words you share can both bond you to me and help me see you as a potential member of the Olin community.

*I’m speaking mostly to essay prompts for application platforms like Common Application. The essay questions for a specific school will likely as for more targeted information (more on school-specific essays later).


Posted in: Emily