This week, Noodle Pro Travis Chamberlain discusses Prompt 6 of the Common App essay: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Travis has been an SAT, ACT, and writing tutor for 15 years. He has a BA from UC Irvine, a Master of Science from LSE, and is working on a PhD at UC San Diego.
Pro Tip: Good college application essays follow the motto of “Show, don’t tell.” This means that instead of telling your audience that you like bacon, you describe how your hands start to twitch and your mouth starts to water every time you hear the sound of bacon frying. Details that show make a story come alive. They also make your essay unique. If your essay is memorable and has personality, it wins. If it sounds like every other essays in the pack, it’s quickly forgotten.
So, let’s consider a few examples for this prompt:
Weak/Standard Example 1: Anonymous Telling, Not Showing
“The ball glances off my foot and into the next. In that moment my whole world is wrapped into receiving the pass from my team mate. The focus is everything; there is no time. All those practices, all those moments spent drilling out on the field have led to this. The ball passes right over the goalie’s fingertips, and in that moment I know that we will win.
I’ve been a soccer player since I was two years old, when my mom and dad would play kickball with me, almost before I can crawl. One of the most amazing parts of soccer for me was how it gave me the strength to believe in myself, and to trust my teammates. When I’m on the field, there really is nothing else.”
Pro Tip: This kind of generic intro doesn’t make you stand out. Even though you think you’ve written something that truly defines your own life and experience, what you’ve really given is a scene from a movie that fits with the narrative of literally tens of thousands of other students submitting their applications with you that year. Let’s look at another not-so-good example and then we can consider how to build the essay up.
Weak/Standard Example 2: Some Details but Still Pretty Anonymous
“Learning a glissando might sound like an easy process, but when it was part of learning a Chopin’s Nocturne 7, I found myself stuck in a maze that took months to master. In some sense when I was practicing for the recital, I lost track of time. I literally lived Chopin’s music. When I was eating rice krispies and trying to study for my pre-calculus test on vectors, Chopin. When I was on the bus and passing every mailbox and tree, Chopin. When I went to sleep, I sometimes dreamed glissandos.
Eventually I did managed the glissando, in fact all of them. Not only did I do this, but I achieved a certificate of merit level 9 and managed to perform the music of Chopin and many others at my advanced orchestra concert in the summer of my junior year. Music has been an amazing focus for me and a balance for the other focuses in my life.”
Pro Tip: This example is better than Example 1, in that it sounds less like a movie and incorporates a few specifics. An admissions board might be amused at some of the details such as hearing music when looking at trees and mailboxes. In this sense the intro and probably the resulting essay will have some memorable details, but the details are pretty standard. Again, the example sounds like something that applies to thousands of possible applicants (the music and even the instrument might be different, but the message is the same).
What we want to find a way to do is to tell the story in such a way that either 1) The activity that you do that a lot of others do is explained so exquisitely and with such detail that it’s obvious to the reader that you love the activity, and that the activity defines you, or 2) You present an activity that not many do, and so you stand out. You need to show the reader what it’s like to be you, not merely tell the reader what it’s like to be you.
Let’s take the first example and make it more compelling:
Updated Example 1B: Actually SHOWING What it’s Like to Dribble
“What slows down time for me is dribbling. Sometimes I’ll go back to school after I’ve finished my homework, put on some Kendrick Lamar or Manu Chao, and get to work. Depending on the music, I’ll work faster or slower, circling the goal and waiting until I know I’ve faked out the defenders in my mind before I take my shot. If I miss, I always sprint after the ball and try again. Cross-over, double step, fake, wall-pass, turn, stutter step, shoot—Miss! Damn! My balance was slightly off. I sprint after the ball while Lamar’s ‘Fear’ carries through the background: “I’ll prolly die anonymous/ I’ll prolly die from promises.” I get the ball, same move. I circle the goalie box, sweat dripping across my vision. Cross-over, double-step, fake, wall-pass, turn, stutter step, shoot- Right in the corner. That felt better. Get the ball and repeat.
When I’m dribbling, time fades away. I can remember staying out till sunset, working on the perfect shot, or sometimes running drills with my team. I like to bring this kind of focus to most of my activities.”
Pro Tip: Notice the level of detail. What the author is doing here is showing, not telling. The author is sharing the details that make up a particular experience. What you need to do as a writer is to consider your favorite activity or activities. Make sure you select one that is socially appropriate; writing about how much you love video gaming is probably not going to impress your selection committee, unless you intend a career in video game development. The trick is you need to take something that 10,000 other students will probably talk about, and make it your own. The way you make it your own is by showing how much it means to you.
Useful topics include activities that you think will continue to be a part of your life in college, and that will connect you with other students, and make you a better person, whatever career you end up choosing. Nobody expects you to know what your career will be at the age of 17, but you need to have an idea of what you like to do, and you need to demonstrate that you can bring a high degree of focus and excellence to what you do. That’s really the question that’s hidden underneath prompt number 6.
Let’s take a look at another example, again to show how a fairly basic activity (math) can be made something memorable for your committee, by showing instead of telling:
Strong Example 03: Even Schoolwork Can be Interesting!
“What is it about math? There’s a feeling I get when I finish the last question on an assignment and I know I’ve got it right- a feeling that makes the last hour and a half of staring at these pencil and eraser marks all worth it. Yesterday Mr. Stevens told us to draw and memorize a unit circle. After digging through my desk I found my old compass and centered it on my paper. I carefully measured out the degrees for each triangle, and marked the angles- pi over six here, four pi over three there.
I noticed with satisfaction when I connected the vertical lines that all my triangles match. The flatter triangles do look just like a bow tie, like Mr. Stevens said, and the tall triangles look a lot like a butterfly, but I think they look more like batman eyes. That makes it easy to remember—all the batman eyes triangles have long ‘y’ sides, so their cosines are 3/2. When I’ve marked every angle and color coded the batman and bow ties, I step back to check my work. I can’t believe it’s been over an hour, but now I know that the unit circle is in my mind. I quickly quiz myself: what’s the tangent of 2π/3? That’s a batman! Quadrant II! So it’s negative.. umm.. negative 3!
Math captivates me because it’s like a puzzle. I sometimes get lost in the details, which is hard to explain to my friends. When they see my homework they sometimes joke about how my printing looks like computer text; I can’t help it- the math simply looks better that way, and I can remember it better on the test.”
Notice: Slightly weird details are okay if they show your competency and your satisfaction with the activity. Anything is fair game, but it has to be a constructive, vocation-oriented activity that you truly enjoy doing. If you don’t enjoy it, the details won’t be there and the reader will know. Your job is to show how it feels to be you when you’re doing the thing you enjoy, and then to step back and explain why you are captivated by it. When you step back, you then have the chance to explain how the activity makes you an interesting applicant for the college. Maybe you won’t even end up doing that activity, but that level of focus is what you can bring to another activity on campus, or towards working in teams with your peers, or for helping to create better clubs on campus, etc.
Do: Talk about what you love, so long as it’s somewhat socially acceptable. Find the details that make it yours, step back, and explain how you can bring that same kind of awareness to your college campus.
Don’t: Present a list of your achievements, and don’t talk about something you like doing so that it sounds like something any of another 10,000 people could say.
This prompt is great for many reasons, not least because it allows you to really show off your passions. Good luck!
Writing Your Common Application Essay