It’s a year for changes in big public university admissions systems. The University of California introduced their all-new Personal Insight Questions—which we discussed on our radio show, Getting In: A College Conversation, last week—and way down south, Apply Texas has introduced new prompts for students applying to the University of Texas system and most other institutions in the state. Back in August, my colleague gave advice on essay length for Apply Texas, which doesn’t place rigid constraints on word count. Today, we’re going to talk about the three main essay prompts, Topics A, B, and C, and how you should think about your responses to them.
Topic A: Mandatory for UT-Austin
If this first prompt looks familiar, it’s because it shares a language with many essays for other schools:
What was the environment in which you were raised? Describe your family, home, neighborhood or community, and explain how it has shaped you as a person.
Now let’s unpack it. The key point here will be to keep it focused on you. Don’t get so lost in the description of your surroundings that you forget to bring it back to the impact those surroundings have made on the person you are today. The “what” of your environment is not as important as the “how” in the impact the environment has had on you. Your focus should be on the last phrase of the prompt: how [your environment] has shaped you as a person.
Think of something specific from among the examples, focusing on some detail about your environment that is directly connected to a trait central to your identity. Instead of describing your mom, your neighborhood, your childhood friends, and your church in one essay, identify the one that you feel you can write about most confidently, and use it as a way of sharing your personality with the admissions committee.
B or C: How to decide?
Excepting those applicants who are seeking admission to special programs like architecture, nursing, or social work, everyone will have to choose between Topics B and C for their second essay. And I think you can look at this as a simple choice between an open-ended but fairly “safe” prompt, and a much more risky, creative prompt. B will look very familiar to students who have already written an essay for the Common App, or carved out answers to personal insight questions for the University of California. Topic C, on the other hand, is unusual. It still grants you the opportunity to share something about yourself, but it provides a much greater opportunity to demonstrate creativity and personality. Choose whatever is most comfortable for you—the one you will feel most confident writing. You’ll never be penalized for the prompts you choose, except in the opportunity cost of making a choice that, in its simplicity, fails to fully introduce you to the admissions office.
Topic B: Choose Your Own Adventure
Most students have an identity, an interest or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.
The central goal of the prompt can be found in these last four words: tell us about yourself. What would you most like to share? What story would you like to tell? You can literally begin with anything. The usefulness of the prompt is in helping you to aim for a singular idea: an identity, interest, OR talent; not an identity, interest, AND talent. Make sure your focus is razor sharp; just because you get the chance to write about anything doesn’t mean you should write about everything.
Topic C: A Literal Adventure
You’ve got a ticket in your hand—Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?
Don’t be scared to be adventurous or show your personality here, but remember that as with all other essay topics, the response needs to come back to you. Where you will go and what you will do isn’t nearly as important as what you will make of the opportunity to have such an experience. This is your chance to shed some light on the kind of personality you will add to a Texas campus. Is there a component of your life, a favorite activity, hobby, or interest that you’ve yet to include in your application? Here’s your chance. Remember the advice I gave in Topic A: don’t let the “what” of your trip overshadow the “why,” namely why this is something you care about. The admissions office wants to know less about the fashion you’ll see when you visit Paris and more about the passion you’ve had for design since you were 13. It is the reason you choose where to go that matters, not the choice you ultimately make. Have fun with this one!
As you may have seen in our last blog post, the prompts for all three ApplyTexas freshman application prompts have changed. We (the College Readiness team) challenged ourselves to think about how we’d answer these new prompts if we were still in high school. We started with Essay A, so this week we’ll talk about the prompt for Essay B. Happy writing!
Essay B:Some students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. If you are one of these students, then tell us about yourself.
Kate: If I haven’t already written something similar for essay A, I might write about being from another country and how that has defined my identity and overall perspective (so this would answer the identity part of the prompt). Alternatively, I could write about how my identity and sense of self have been shaped through having a twin.
I was talented enough in dancing and singing to make Markettes and the varsity choir MHS, but I don’t think I considered either of these as talents that I excelled in (nor did I pursue either when I got to college). I held significant leadership positions through both activities, however, so I’m sure I could find a way to write about being a strong leader and my leadership abilities and/or why it was important to me to try out for those leadership positions..
Tips: If an interest or talent immediately comes to mind when you read this prompt, I think it would be a good idea to go with that. This prompt is asking you to talk about your passion and why you devote so much time to it. If you’re struggling to come up with anything to write about, consider your interests and the things that you make time for outside of school. What’s something that you started researching for fun that made you stay up way past your bedtime because you were so intrigued? How do you define yourself? If you’re struggling with this prompt, ask your family, friends, or whoever knows you best to help your brainstorm some ideas.
Something really neat about this particular prompt is that when you write this essay, you can probably use the exact same essay for the first prompt on the Common App (“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.”), which means one less essay you’d have to write if you’re going to be using both applications (yay!).
Alex: Again, there are two directions I personally would choose to take with this essay, based on my personal experiences. If I were to go the identity route, I would probably write my essay about my literal heritage: my father is from Czechoslovakia, and came to the United States when he was eleven, making me a first generation American on that side. Consequently, we’ve incorporated a lot of European traditions into our family household, and there were aspects of my childhood growing up that I never realized were uncommon in other homes. I would also probably incorporate the fact that my mother is from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and I was not born in Texas, and so I have never really felt anchored to or affiliated with any particular location/state/culture.
If I were to choose the interest/talent route, I would write my essay about playing the piano and how important this was to me as a high school student. I was definitely one of the “artsy” kids, and piano was a musical outlet for me in a very specific way: playing the piano was one hundred percent for my own personal enrichment and enjoyment, without any kind of pressure to compete or perform (outside of two yearly recitals) or to be completely perfect at it. I would practice for two hours every day (again, being homeschooled allowed me the time to devote to this particular activity), and for those two hours I could relax, unwind, and immerse myself in a craft that, to me, was a worthwhile pursuit and an excellent use of my time. As high school students, we typically apply ourselves to activities and school work because we are working for the pay-off (getting a full ride scholarship for our grades or for sports) – but I never had to worry about that with piano. It was the perfect example of art for art’s sake.
Tips: What’s helpful about this topic is the flexibility – you can pick an interest or talent or identity. Just like Essay A, pick ONE topic and stick to it! The more narrow your focus, the better your essay will be! This is also the kind of essay where generating a list of possibilities will come in handy. Even if you are the star of your lacrosse team, you may get two paragraphs in and you’ve said all you can say about that particular interest – but find yourself waxing poetic about that time your dad bought a completely junked Cadillac Coupe de Ville and you both spent all summer restoring it to its original 1950’s glory (and now you’re planning on majoring in business so that you can open a dealership that exclusively handles vintage car restoration and sales).
Eriel: My high school experience is split in two parts. In Part 1 (grades 9th and 10th), I am a socially-challenged, homeschooled genius, taking private singing lessons and film-acting courses because I was determined to be the star of the Boy Meets World reboot. In Part 2 (grades 11th and 12th), I am (still) a socially challenged theater actress and budding fiction writer crawling her way to the graduation podium so she could chuck a deuce and say sayonara to an army of teenagers she could hardly hold a conversation with. At the core of this duality, I disliked (note the past tense here) people and loved to create things. My time being homeschooled allowed me to invest my time where I wanted – performing, painting, writing, creating, etc. Though my parents’ professions aren’t in creative departments, each member of my family had some sort of artsy talent. My mom loves interior design, my dad’s a chef, my sister’s a dancer, my little brother has his music, and my baby brother has his sketches. So, I’m guessing high school me would’ve rolled with an interest in the creative arts and how they pair with personalities or how they translate from personality to medium. To further specify the essay, I’d hone in on storytelling and how that creative art wedged itself into several mediums (i.e. performance, writing, cooking).
Tip: I think a major struggle students will encounter with this prompt is specificity. Because the prompt asks for an identity, interest, or talent, students may feel the need to address all three pillars here. That certainly isn’t the case. This is a pick one and run kinda thing. When you do pick, however, pick wisely. It may take a couple of drafts and drills to find the sweet spot, so take your time choosing before sprinting away with the topic in hand. I believe students should have a two pronged approach to this prompt: 1) Show off your personality and your hobbies, and 2) Relate it to what you intend to do professionally. This will give you the opportunity to show who you are and what impact you intend to leave on the world.