In the last installment of our series, Noodle Pro Jamie Berger discusses Prompt 7 of the Common App essay: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Jamie has been a test prep, writing, and academic coach for 32 years. He has a BA from Columbia University, an MA from City College of New York, and an MFA from University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Is the “Topic of your Choice” the Topic You Should Choose?
In my post a few weeks ago on writing the “failure” essay prompt, I mentioned that no student I’ve ever worked with has stepped up and taken the challenge of that topic. Now I’d like to discuss writing on prompt 7, which is somewhat controversial akin to the “failure” prompt, but much more enticing to applicants in its open-endedness.
Let’s take this non-prompt prompt apart phrase by phrase and discuss its advantages and pitfalls.
“A topic of your choice.”
As I mentioned, this prompt sounds very enticing to some students, and absolutely anathema (look it up!) to others. I usually start working with students on the Common App essay by having them free-write about various aspects of themselves—hobbies, life-changing events—that otherwise wouldn’t appear in their college applications, and then see whether what they come up with might be successfully used as a response to one of the prompts.
If, and pretty much only if, a student’s chosen topic will not fit into one of the existing prompts, we consider the “topic of your choice.” Why only then? Because no admissions officer wants to read an essay that could have fit well into one of the given prompts but seems as if the student just wasn’t able to or didn’t make enough of an effort to make it work.
Conversely though, if you know you want to write about your collection of 19th century political cartoons and it’s important to you as a writer/artist/future political scientist or journalist or artist, and it just won’t fit into one of the given categories, then by all means, do not force it into a prompt for which it doesn’t fit—that’s why prompt 7 exists.
“It can be one you’ve already written”
Be careful with this! Yes, the makers of the Common App have written these words, but schools most definitely do not want to see you recycle a school paper you wrote that doesn’t really do the job of a Common App essay, which is to express an aspect or yourself that you feel colleges wouldn’t otherwise know.
As I say to students over and over, do not fudge, skate, or slack on this assignment. If you do, it will make you seem like you’re not taking your college applications seriously!
“…one that responds to a different prompt or can be one of your own design.”
This just means that you may use a prompt you’ve been given elsewhere, or you can write yourself a prompt and respond to it. There’s no easy answer to how colleges will look at an applicant who repurposes another institution’s prompt, so, unless that “different prompt” is one you can’t do without, I suggest writing your own that fits with your topic.
So, to sum up, if, after consulting with your college counselor you’ve decided what aspect of yourself you know you want to write on, and you’ve tried (really tried) and found it just can’t fit into one of the given prompts without feeling like a square peg in a round hole, then go ahead, write that “topic of your choice” essay.
As with all my advice on the Common App essay, though, be willing to work hard and write one, even multiple drafts of one, while always leaving room to say to yourself, nah, this just doesn’t work, I should try one of the other prompts.
This is not a twenty-page paper, so you can try one and start over—just make sure you do your very best with it, even if that means “wasting” a few hours of good work. The time isn’t actually wasted if it leads to a good decision and a great essay!