Reflections on the dreaded college essay

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As Jan. 1 approaches, the seniors at Whitefish High School grow increasingly panicked. The deadline is almost here; college applications are due.

Now, many students have already submitted applications. Some students have even been accepted and know where they will be attending next year. And of course, not everyone is planning on attending college, so they are free of this particular anxiety. But for most, the stress is almost visible, weighing on their shoulders.

Most of you might think Iím exaggerating ó and perhaps I am a bit. But the nerves and fear are very real. Why, you might ask. Itís as simple as filling out your information and submitting test scores. As long as you have good grades, you shouldnít be worried. Well, yes, youíre right in a sense. Some applications are as simple as that. Those ones arenít the source of anxiety.

Most colleges use a program called the Common Application. Itís an outside company that allows a student to fill out their application once and then submit it to any number of schools. Many schools have some additional questions, but it saves a lot of time and effort on the part of the student. Itís mostly menial work, filling in personal information, grades, and test scores. But when you reach the end ó that is when the fear sets in.

The final, daunting task is arguably the most important of the college application process ó the personal essay. You have 650 words in which to demonstrate to a school that you deserve to be accepted. You have 650 words in which to prove that you are special. You have 650 words in which to define yourself.

So what does that look like? Well, letís take a look at the prompts that Common App has provided this year:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem youíve solved or a problem youíd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma ó anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. 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?

Itís clear that we have a lot of options from which to choose. And thatís great! No one wants to be tied to a prompt that they feel does not apply to them. But these prompts are so ... vague. Impersonal. How do we turn these into a personal statement that will impact and move admissions officers in our favor?

I wish I had an answer to give you, but I donít. There is a lot of advice out there, some more helpful than others. But itís hard for a student to determine what exactly is going to paint them in a positive light in the eyes of admission. Itís a gamble that we all have to take when we eventually decide on a topic. And it can be the deciding factor of whether we are admitted to our dream school.

Now that you understand the stakes and the difficulty of this essay, Iím going to present a challenge to you readers: pick a prompt from the list above and craft your own personal essay. Write something moving, write something personal. Take 650 words and define who you are.

Josephine Johnson is a senior at Whitefish High School.

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