Boston College High School
My dad and I made the ascent together. We climbed the Precipice Trail, the Acadia National Park path of lore whose steep cliffs and trail-side signs warning of death convinced more prudent hikers to turn around before the halfway mark. Resting, I gazed out beyond the dizzying drop below to the green Maine foothills and blue Atlantic Ocean. I appreciated the slight strain in my step, ready to move onward. My dad also stood, his hat crooked and backward, his shirt soaked through, still panting for breath.
“I think we need a water break,” I said, looking him over.
“I think so, too,” he replied.
My relationship with my dad is a complicated one. In the halcyon days of my childhood, I remember our Saturday morning “dump runs” followed by a stop at McDonald’s, where, as soon as he let me, I would order the exact same “Big n’ Tasty” meal he would. Then, he took me hiking, camping, and skiing. His patient guidance and care on the trail stood in stark contrast to my frustrated, bumbling childhood clumsiness. I would whine and cry and yell on hikes too long or hills too steep; he would stop, listen and encourage me onward. With him, I was comfortable and secure. He could do no wrong.
In time, as we both grew older, this changed. He lost his job and fell into a depression and an absent-mindedness I found hard to understand. Despite his dealing with a mental illness, I became more critical, more attentive to his flaws and shortcomings. He lost his glasses, got linguine when we asked for rigatoni at the grocery store and forgot my friends’ names.
At family dinner he sat largely silent until he interrupted with a non sequitur or unrelated question. I promised myself, with all of my naïve bravado, that I would never make myself vulnerable like he did, that I would never wallow in past regrets or failures. I would be assertive, I told myself. I would be a man.
So when I scaled that trail with so much comparative ease, I initially relished the fact that I walked ahead, I carried the pack, I checked in on him. I thought I was being a man. Sitting down, my dad’s breathing slowed, and he asked me, like he had so many times, if I had read David Brooks’s column that week. I hadn’t.
So he filled me in. Listening to him discuss the necessity of imperfection in the democratic process, I felt a twinge of guilt. Guilt that I had fancied myself superior. Guilt that I had ever bought into facile standards of “manhood”; that I had imagined being a proper man meant unfailing vigor on a hiking trail, never dealing with switchbacks or setbacks, never losing your footing or your way.
I looked at my dad and knew all of those notions about employment, competent hiking or getting the right type of pasta at the grocery store, were false. I looked at my dad and I saw that being a man isn’t about any sort of superficial, external measure. As it was during my childhood misadventures, it’s about us, the imperfect son with the imperfect father, supporting each other up the proverbial mountain.
For me, the transition to manhood was not an external one: Fortunately, there was no rite of passage or singular circumstance that forced me to become a man. Rather, sitting there against a cliff with my father, I wondered if maybe adulthood simply meant looking beyond oneself, to the other, without any pretense or pomp. Maybe my father, with his unpretentious generosity and willingness to get back up and continue the trek, is the best example of a man I have.
He finished up his thoughts about the Brooks article, his breathing still audible.
“How about we get that water,” I said, reaching back into the pack.
With the 2017-2018 application cycle soon to be underway, the essay team here at CollegeVine has decided to share some of our best tips and strategies on how to write the all-important Common App essays. This year, The Common Application has announced various revisions and additions to its essay prompts. In total, three of the original five prompts have been revised, and two entirely new prompts have been added.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that will make admissions committees take notice.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to you know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you.
Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
Strategy for Writing the Common App 2017-2018 Essays
Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and includes minimal formal directions, organizing a response can seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we have developed a simple approach to formulating strong, unique responses.
This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm, 2) Organize, and 3) Write a Common App essay.
Before reading the Common App prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an extracurricular activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you may come up with.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you should address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer:
- “Who Am I?”
- “Why Am I Here?”
- “What is Unique About Me?”
- “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph, i.e., “Writing matters to me” or “Family matters to me.”
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. You will be great as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.