Episode 57: Brainstorming: Focus on Significance

Episode 57: Brainstorming: Focus on Significance

Date of Publication/发布日期
December 10, 2021
Curtis Westbay
Files & media
Volume 2 2021-2022

The first Common Application personal statement prompt is:

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.

It's clear that colleges are interested in better understanding who a student is, and how a student identifies themselves is an important part of understanding. It feels like an easy question: what is something that is so significant about your life that you can't be understood without it? Students often answer in the same ways: transitioning from public school to international school, enduring a family tragedy, overcoming challenging coursework, triumph or failure in sports or activities. These topics are so overdone that we typically advise students to avoid them altogether. There is no rule saying that these topics can't be done well... but they usually aren't. These topics often reduce our students to stock characters, saying the same things that you would expect someone in their position to say. You might expect an athlete to remark on how consistent practice taught them the value of incremental growth. This lesson is valuable and valid. But the college application reader hears it many times, done in the same way.

Students can focus on these common lessons without writing a common essay.

What is the significance of the story? As counselors, we try to get at this question by asking a question like "What is a belief you hold firmly?" Or, "what makes you angry?" By digging into these extreme emotions or personal principles, students might be able to carve out a lane that is a little more unique. A student once told me about how she was always frustrated when people cut in line, even for small things. Through our conversation, she revealed that, the bigger her community, the more insignificant she felt. She said that she thought people transgressed against others, even in small ways, when there was no consequence and they had no connection to them. When they could and when their victim was anonymous to them, the student felt, people didn't behave with humanity. This was a far more interesting collection of thoughts than her original essay idea, a story about the difficulty of adapting to a Western style of learning in an international school. At first look, getting irritated by someone cutting in line at a convenience store is an unremarkable, superficial pet peeve, but the student focused on the significance of that frustration to her to find a more deeply-held belief.

Through many drafts of an essay, the student explored these sentiments. Themes emerged, like the value of carefully curating one's own community to stay positive in trying times. In pre-write exercises, the student talked about ways to cope with situations where the control of a peer group is out of your hands, like conscious empathy, clarifying questions, and timed breathing. A lot of the material wasn't necessarily cut out for the personal statement, but it was useful nonetheless and ended up in some of her supplemental essays, as well. As the student dug into the significant feelings she had, she was able to find even more answers to the original questions.

Significant lessons can come from insignificant moments.

Oftentimes students try to find that huge, impressive moment that will stick out to a reader: the big game, the big competition, the big move, the big crisis. Truth is, most of the best essays I read involve big ideas, not big moments. The story is the vehicle for the real value of the essay, which is the idea or characteristic that the student possesses. That story can be about getting jumped in a line to pay for a drink, and it may connect to a lot of larger ideas, like wage theft.

When brainstorming, it is frequently most useful to think about the message you want to convey, not the means by which you intend to convey it.