With college application season comes the pressure to produce high-quality admissions essays. Make no mistake – regardless of the wording of the question, virtually all admissions essays are truly asking, "Who are you?" Secondarily, they allow college or university admissions staff members to assess your ability to form a coherent narrative.
Here are several tips to help you address some actual admissions essay prompts faced by the class of 2016, as well as those of your own prospective colleges.
• The Common Application: "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?"
The admissions committee is not seeking travel suggestions here. Rather, this question is meant to provide insight into your passions.
Draft an opening sentence that is descriptive, and allow your reader to envision you at that perfect moment. Ensure you address the second part of the question as well – this is your opportunity to explain what you value in life.
Is your perfect moment the last time you leisurely read a book amid your hectic schedule? Or is it when you served a home-cooked meal to your overworked family? Is it the moment before the first football game of the season when you are surrounded by your team?
A more sophisticated answer could include a discussion of "contentment" itself. You might contrast contentment with happiness, achievement or satisfaction. Make it clear that you understand the intent of the original question, but be explicit in why you consider contentment secondary to another state of being.
Questioning the question, when handled appropriately, can show that you are capable of higher-order reasoning. If it is done poorly, however, you risk seeming as if you avoided or misread the prompt.
• Pomona College: "What does freedom mean to you?"
Do not begin this essay with "According to the dictionary," under any circumstances. Admissions officers will likely receive hundreds of essays that begin this way. Remember that this essay is more about you than it is about freedom.
One approach is to share a story about a time when you simply felt free; consider contrasting it with a time you felt constrained. You might also discuss a time when you felt you were prevented from following your dreams by some sort of barrier, as well as what it would mean for you to transcend that barrier.
Better yet? Discuss how you plan to overcome the hurdles you have faced.
A riskier approach to this question would be to address the importance of freedom as a concept. It is perhaps impossible to find an individual who would argue against freedom, so you would need to find an unusual angle from which to approach the topic. As an example, you could reference this quotation by Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
Are freedom and liberty the same idea? Is metaphorical blood acceptable, or must it be literal? Ensure you explicitly state why this conversation is important to you.
• United States Naval Academy: "Describe a personal experience you have had which you feel has contributed to your own character development and integrity."
In this case, the weakest answer would be to describe something you merely witnessed, such as a friend who was caught cheating on a test. A better answer would be to describe something you did that caused harm, followed by the lesson you learned as a result.
Do not merely point out that everyone makes mistakes – your reader knows this. Instead, demonstrate that you are capable of empathy by explaining how your actions made the other person feel, and subsequently, describing the lesson you learned.
It is possible, too, to answer this question with a time that you held to your convictions. What does it mean that you lost a friend because you refused to help him or her in a lie?
Remember, every essay is a chance to show an admissions committee exactly who you are.