One of Mark Twain's great apocryphal quotes is that students "shouldn't let school get in the way of their education." He could have said much the same for this year's Common Application essay prompts and the essays that must conform to them.
Previously, the Common Application--the online platform used by over 500 of the country's most selective colleges - had given applicants five essay prompts but also invited to write on a topic of their choice. The free-respond was, in my experience as a former college counselor, the most popular choice by far. Paradoxically, this year's Common App eliminates the free-response option, thus requiring applicants to contemplate one of five prescribed prompts.
I happen to find these prompts constraining at best, and I'll explain why in a future blog post. With that said, if they inspire genuine, heartfelt responses in some students, then so much the better. That's especially true for students who might feel unmoored by the lack of a prompt. What's certainly true is that the quality of an essay ultimately depends on the author: a thoughtful student can do wonders with the oddest prompt, and freedom can give others fits.
My chief concern is that students will feel beholden to the prompts rather than inspired by them. Fortunately, for writers who have strong, but seemingly nonconforming topics, there are plenty of ways for writers to push the prompts into the background while still responding to them faithfully. Even if doing so entails some nose-pinching. (Or a cheeky workaround; see No. 3 below.)
In this post, I've analyzed the first two of the five topics (with the other three to follow shortly) to consider what might work and what might not work. I discuss what I think are the most straightforward approaches for each response, I point out traps to avoid, and I offer a few "hacks" (for lack of a better word) to expand the range of responses.
No matter what, the students who have fun with these prompts and who allow...
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