The straightforward answer to this question is that universities in the USA are foremost concerned about your academics. They are also equally keen on getting to know whether you are a good fit for their school. In other words, they search for students with values and qualities that align with those of their schools’. Also, the essays are a good way of ‘somewhat’ an attempt to ascertain your personality, unique perspective, and experiences.
More importantly, they want to know and understand the STORY behind your PASSIONS, GOALS, ASPIRATIONS, MOTIVATIONS, STRUGGLES, SUCCESSES, and IDENTITIES. According to Michelle A. Hernandez, former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, the best kind of application essays are the “slice-of-life” essays: a “ small, seemingly insignificant incident that sheds lights on your personality or any factors in your background that have influenced what kind of person you are”.
Sometimes, when I read some essays, I see students make the fundamental error of writing a beautiful essay that does not answer the question all. Such an essay sends the wrong message: you are inattentive to detail and you submitted a rushed piece of work. Probably an essay you wrote the night before the deadline date. In any case, you did a poor job and that does not bode well for you.
If you are an African applicant, this essay is a very good way to tell admission officers of the diversity you bring to their class. The essay requires you to tell them of a MEANINGFUL part of who are, where you come from or what you love to do. So, your unique environment in terms of your neighborhood, like the slum you grew up in or the ethnically diverse community you hail from. This essay should show how it may have influenced who you are or your motivations. It could even be a unique aspect of your tribe or family, your hair as a biracial, or your experiences as a gay person living in Africa.
The essay should also connect emotionally to the reader. The admission officers must be able to relate with you as a human being in the essay. Allowing them to feel the emotions as you tell your story is important to help them remember you by your essay.
Finally, the essay must bring out the uniqueness of the perspective and experience you have which probably differs from most teenagers.
The challenge with this essay is that it could come out underwhelming. Most of the obstacles that students write about are things that most teenagers go through resulting in an and-so-what- we-have heard-it-before effect on the reader. An essay that just talks about how your football team was losing a tournament and you went for half-time, had a pep talk, and then came back to win is an example of that an ineffective essay.
This essay requires you to focus on the lessons you learned from that experience. Therefore, it is not a good idea to write 2 or 3 paragraphs talking about the problem or, worse, whine about it. A brief description of the challenge or obstacle is enough. A majority of the essay should tell them how you overcame it and the lessons you learned from it, and how you went on to apply some of these lessons to other experiences. Altogether, this essay should demonstrate the impact the experience has had on you.
The essay for mavericks and iconoclasts. If you have a unique story of how you challenged, for instance, your family on subjecting you to genital mutilation as a right of passage or questioning the stereotypical gender roles of men, whose societal roles are not in the kitchen but doing macho work, then this is your essay. These beliefs could be DELETERIOUS, MARGINALIZING, DISPROPORTIONAL WITH REALITY, DEMEANING, ABUSIVE, OUTMODED ETC. In order to come out with a good essay under this prompt, you need to answer a few more questions:
Why was this situation important to you?
What did you actually do about it?
What/ who was your opposition and what did you learn from that challenge?
What have you gone on to do with this new change you have realized or brought about?
How does the future look for you?
This is a new prompt common app has introduced for the 2021-22 college application year. I believe it is in response to the huge humanitarian crisis that the world has gone through for the past year. The pandemic has taught us the value of society and support of one another in trying times. Nevertheless, the inspiration for the prompt does not restrict responses to only the pandemic experiences as the common app has kept the COVID essay for this admission cycle as well so do well not to confuse these two prompts.
This prompt asked applicants to submit a story of who they are presently as a result of an act of kindness or even wickedness that with hindsight makes you grateful. A journey into the experience including how you felt, thought, and reacted to various aspects of the experience will be important. Finally, it must tell the reader the significance of that experience to who you are today including your pursuits and dreams.
This essay is one of a maturing experience of significance to you. A good tip to note is that the event which led to this new realization should be recent, probably during your third or second year in high school. The reason is that a recent event shows some level of college readiness perhaps in terms of your independence, maturity, and responsibility.
Moreover, the essay should take the reader on the journey you went through or the process you took to arrive at that epiphany. It must also tell them how you have applied this new mindset or person in different activities and what the outcomes were.
A note of caution here: this essay is not a regurgitation of your extracurricular activity. It is about getting to know you as the person behind the accomplishments and awards.
“This means a lot to me” is a story that this essay must tell. It is the dog with the bone type of scenario. You being the dog and the “topic”, “idea”, and “concept” being the bone. This essay is about passion, dedication, and persistence. It also tells of a curious mind and the will to learn more about your craft or passions. Your response must tell the reader why this idea or concept means a lot to you. Show your passion through what you have done and want to do about it. Importantly, the essay must show traces of your dedication to this topic or concept in your activities: hours, weeks, or even years you have spent on it.
Another note of caution here. Although the essay tells you to write on any topic, it does not mean you write about an academic topic. These essays are not designed to ascertain your academic brilliance but WHO YOU ARE. Therefore, if the topic you choose to write on removes you from the equation of the essay then it will be literally much you do about nothing.